Fishermen can join in environmental efforts

Posted: Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Alaska fishing industry has, at times, come into conflict with the oil industry regarding the health of the marine environment. Cocerns include offshore oil and gas development in Bristol Bay, development in the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi seas, contaminated discharges from oil platforms into Cook Inlet, oil storage facilities under the shadow of an active volcano, the Pathfinder wrecking on the infamous Bligh Reef -and these are just a few of the problems that have arisen over the years.

In the ensuing debates, a criticism has sometimes been leveled at fishermen - and even voiced by fishermen themselves - that since our fleets are powered by fossil fuels, it is hypocritical to levy tougher standards on the oil industry or to prevent access to vital fishing grounds entirely. This censure is healthy, as it brings to light valid concerns which should, in fact, be aired and discussed. At the same time, it overshadows a greater truth and a larger principle.

Moving toward increasing environmental responsibility, diversifying our energy sources and taking steps within the fishing industry to reduce our fossil fuel dependence will result in positive changes for our families, our coastal communities, and our economy. It will give us a rock solid and, more importantly, a sustainable foundation.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the world's fishing fleets account for between 0.2 percent and 0.6 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. This isn't much, but it is, nonetheless, a contributing factor. There is little doubt that the fishing industry could improve its carbon footprint. Until viable alternative energy sources are perfected and more widely available, there are affordable hydrogen generators which can boost fuel efficiency by 20 percent or more.

If fuel is carefully filtered the figure can climb even higher. Hydraulic fluids can be replaced by nontoxic, vegetable-based oils. New filtering technology can extend engine oil life by a magnitude of five. Simple education, being aware of the need for fuel efficiency and taking more responsibility can bring real and lasting changes.

The Time Bandit, a vessel on the popular television show "The Deadliest Catch," is undergoing a retrofit designed to make it the cleanest, greenest boat in the Bering Sea crab fleet. They'll even have a non-toxic de-icer painted on the hull to help in extreme weather.

Research by the Energy Information Administration shows that conservation alone can significantly bring down our national fuel consumption. For every barrel of oil that we might extract in offshore waters, with enormous environmental risks, we can conserve 100 barrels through wiser use of our vehicles - or green retrofits of our fleets.

It is not wrong nor is it hypocritical for fishermen to advocate for strong environmental standards. All of us can do our part. It's going to take a concerted unified effort to find solutions for ocean acidification. It's going to take inspired innovation and technology to bring greater efficiency to our vehicles and our vessels.

Alaska has a long and close history with the oil industry, and some see this as the only economically viable way forward for our state. But while oil has brought revenue and jobs, it has also brought environmental devastation and lost fisheries. And it's not just the oil industry; we, as a fossil-fueled society, have contributed to ocean acidification and climate change.

Acidification may seriously threaten the future of our fisheries through fundamental changes to the marine ecosystem. And we can all see climate change, especially here in Alaska, in warming temperatures, eroding shorelines and erratic weather patterns.

The way forward really is in developing alternative fuel and energy sources. The bearing we're currently on has a clearly-marked reef ahead, and it would be wise to chart a new course.

If we act now, we have the ability and resources to shape a smarter, greener future. We can skirt that reef and find open water. If we ignore the rocks, the damage we do to the planet may be irreparable, and may very well result in huge, potentially insurmountable problems. If not for us, surely for future generations.

• Dan Strickland is a 30-year Alaska fishermen. He works for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. He lives in Palmer.

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