Small groups can change the world for the better Turning the tides

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2007

For some weeks now, I've been meeting with a group of passionate locals; several members, like myself, have called Southeast Alaska home for half a century plus. We have many common interests, but our current collaboration is about Turning the Tides for a healthy ocean - troubleshooting and seeking tiny miracles in reversing the tragedy of marine pollution and biomass destruction.

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I am not yet sure how I might contribute to the cause; however, I am convinced that there will come a time when my generation will be held accountable for its actions (or lack thereof), and if I make no effort now, I won't deserve my grandson's forgiveness. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, yet I choose to be inspired by committed friends all over the planet, and I remind myself that the Atlantic slave trade was "ended" in only 30 years by a handful of abolitionists. Collaboration seems to be the key, as Margaret Mead put it so perfectly: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

I've spent my life (59 years so far) on the saltwater of our Northwest coast. My folks moved south from Fairbanks in 1947 when dad took a job with an early flying service in Petersburg. I spent my first six years, from 1948 to 1954, on the beaches along Fritz Cove Road. I sport-fished in Auke Bay as a kid, chugging around in half-rotten wooden skiffs with a mighty five-horse Johnsen, helping my old buddy John tend his herring net under the government float ramp, trolling for spring kings with my friend Al on sunny May days between final exams.

Fast forward a bit: After three years at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and a year around the world on freighters, I came home settling into what turned out to be a 33-year career as a marine pilot with the Alaska ferry system -- on the 1,000 mile inland sea, Seattle to Cape Spencer.

For years, I've proudly considered myself a keen observer of marine wildlife; I love to be aware of what's going on around me, and I especially enjoy scanning the wet horizon with eye or glass from a pilothouse 50 or 60 feet up.

When I saw a couple of young humpbacks today off Lena beach, I wondered again how much of what I've seen on the water my new grandson can hope to see. How long will the remaining feed last -- for the whales, for the winter sea lions at Benjamin island, and for the wild salmon stocks?

I also often wonder how the real old(er)-timers take the loss of so much of nature in their lifetimes - habitat, herring, king salmon. Man has managed to foul the oceans to such an incredible extent -- with nylon nets that keep fishing forever, with floating, suspended and sinking plastics, petrochemicals, and timebombs of cold war toxins in metal drums. Between Hawaii and San Francisco, a slowly spinning rotary current contains floating garbage in an area the size of Alaska. Lee shores are littered with garbage (See Alaska magazine, November 2007, "Trashed"). Birds, mammals and fish ingest microscopic plastic bits, and they pass toxins up the food chain. Our bodies today contain hundreds of exotic chemicals. (See National Geographic October 2006, "The Pollution Within", reporting 82,000 manmade chemicals in our environment.)

A fisheries biologist friend, at his retirement 10 years ago, lamented that there's not a fishery in history man hasn't destroyed. The annual planet-wide biomass loss cannot be sustained. The insane use of draggers will one day end, and we'll see another Grand Banks scenario: mothballing of the trawl fleet after the stocks are gone.

From the 1880s into the 1960s, tuna-fleet-type purse seiners fueled herring reduction plants (also referred to as "stink plants") all over the territory. Fifty years ago, salmon fishermen jigged fresh bait almost anytime they pleased. Commercial longliners often seined herring off the Petersburg floats before halibut trips. When the commercial herring fishery was reopened in the 1970s, some in the industry claimed that stocks were as healthy as ever. Even cheechakos knew better, but humans are ever so talented at justifying short-term self-interest. Lower Lynn Canal herring were targeted by seiners and gillnetters until 1980. Small pockets were taken in gillnets for a few years - in Seymour Canal, off Revilla Channel, in Behm Canal, etc., until the only remaining commercial show in Southeast was in Sitka Sound. Some biologists disagreed with the continued practice of depletion, but, as is so often the case, political managers called the shots. The Japanese paid such handsome amounts for sac roe that the fish were frequently stripped and carcasses dumped.

The public turned a blind eye to the losses in the 1970s and 80s, but now in 2007, there is much talk about the definition of the tiny remnant run in Berners Bay. Might it be time to end the slumber party?

As humans grow older, many learn a few things. Tragically though, our clearest vision is always that in the rearview mirror. As we approach tipping points on many fronts, the accelerations toward collapse render accurate predictions impossible. If there are not enough of us who learn to see what's dead ahead, my grandson will not be able to marvel at this incredible beauty, but only at his grandfather's stories about a glorious planetary life support system and its decline.

But I still have hope, as do the people of Turning the Tides. Should you feel inclined to give credence to Margaret Mead's statement about the world-altering powers that lie with small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens, I would like to invite you to our meetings.

• Karl Schoeppe (Shep) is a council member of Turning The Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote environmentally friendly living and alternatives to plastics. TTT will hold its next general meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 5:30 p.m. To contact the organization, call 907-789-0449 or visit

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