Oiling the Chains of Government: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Corrupts the Political Process (Part 2 in The Real Price of Oil series)
This article is part of a series on climate change, the effects of fossil fuels, and ways towards a sustainable future.
You can make your voice heard on these issues. Alaska’s own Senator Murkowski is the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Tell her to act on climate change by signing our petition, sending a letter we’ve written, or contacting her yourself. Her office can be reached at 202-224-6665, by mail at 709 Hart Senate Building, Washington, D.C. 20510, or through this contact form.
Oil companies are wreaking havoc on the environment. Cutting corners in dealing with waste has polluted environments from America to the Amazon. Oil spills have ruined ecosystems on seas and shores. And the fundamental aim of these companies – to extract oil from the ground to burn for energy – is leading to climate change and its slew of disastrous consequences. Surely, the responsibility of a government to serve its people includes protecting the planet they inhabit. So why have governments done so little to address climate change? Why do they continue to support and subsidize the destructive fossil fuel industry? Well, that has something to do with the power of the companies involved in that industry. These companies are able to use the utterly ridiculous amounts of money they control to manipulate politicians – so that they can make more money, profiting off the Earth’s pains. They use their power to attack credible science, bribe foreign governments, and tinker with the legal system so they can continue to pollute the world.
The oil and gas industry spent $141 million on lobbying in 2014. Surely a sizeable sum, but nothing compared to what it nets for these companies. When President Obama set out to cut $4 billion in federal tax breaks to these companies, he didn’t stand a chance with a congress deep in the pocket of oil lobbies like the American Petroleum Institute. Some of these massive subsidies date back to a century ago, when these companies were getting off the ground. It might seem logical that if we’re to keep such subsidies around, we would help out renewable energy companies that now need that same starting boost. But the fossil fuel industry sees renewables as a threat to business. Among others with oil interests, the Koch Brothers poured money into lobbying against tax breaks for wind energy. Because of the wealth that oil companies and their allies wield, they’re able to get directly into the ears of those who make policy. This has led to seemingly paradoxical exemptions in restrictions on pollution. Oil companies, whose waste decimates ecosystems, aren’t subject to many environmental regulations. They are allowed to pump toxins into the air and water due to personalized loopholes in the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. These are the privileges that money can buy
This infographic from priceofoil.org reveals how efficiently big oil is able to use their lobbying dollars for government kickbacks
Big oil’s money is also being put to use in attempts to manipulate the science behind climate change. Legal funds supported by oil money have dug through records to try to defame reputable climate scientists, incurring lawsuits for their use of slander. These funds serve as fronts for oil corporations to make tax-deductible, anonymous donations towards skewing science. Donors Trust, another of these organizations, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Dr. Willie Soon, a researcher who denies man-made climate change. Dr. Soon, who often neglects to cite where his money comes from, contrary to publishing standards, claims that changes in the sun’s energy are responsible for global warming. Many scientists agree that his methods and data are wildly out of date, yet he is cited time and again by climate-denying senators. Big Oil buys not only politicians, but also scientists, in their efforts to remain on the throne of the energy kingdom.
Big oil is using their political clout to not only allow themselves the freedom to pollute, but also to prevent renewable solutions from being implemented.
By this point, it likely surprises no one to hear that these companies get involved in some corruption. Transparency International made this fact perfectly clear by conglomerating global surveys and handing the crown of most corrupt industry to oil and gas. They proved to be the best and most regular bribers of governments. Some of these bribes went to Muammar el-Qaddafi, when he demanded that oil companies, in exchange for continued access to Libyan oil fields, help him settle his debts with the families of people his military had murdered. In 2011, the Securities and Exchange Commission tried to crack down on corporate bribes to foreign governments. The American Petroleum Institute wasn’t having it, however. They used their massive lobbying power to ensure they wouldn’t have to disclose whatever bribes that oil companies were making. These bribes allow them to decimate environments – from Ecuador to the Niger Delta, big oil has skirted regulations and shown no regard for the ecosystems they operate in. Occasionally, in America and abroad, these companies are penalized with fines. But another advantage of being filthy rich is that they can take these fines as operating costs – they are usually a lot less expensive than actually cleaning up their acts.
Activists in Nigeria call upon Shell to clean up a massive oil spill. Photo: Amnesty International
Big oil is using their political clout to not only allow themselves the freedom to pollute, but also to prevent renewable solutions from being implemented. Even if these companies followed regulation and ethical business practices, they would be destroying our climate. But their power is such that they have no need to do either of these things. The corruption and environmental degradation that goes hand in hand with these companies' operations should trigger anyone’s moral radar. In order to protect the planet we inhabit, we cannot continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to unjustly control so much political power. We must stand up together to tell our elected officials to stop listening to the selfish desires of these companies and instead take action to address climate change.
The island of Admiralty remains to this day a place preserved almost entirely as Wilderness. Home to the highest density of brown bears in North America, a population of a few hundred residents, and prolific stands of old-growth that never saw the saw, this country, by anyone’s definition, the federal government’s included, is Wild. But the briefest of glances at Admiralty’s history makes immediately evident that this future was never assured; the preserved state of this landscape never necessarily its inevitable fate. To quite the contrary, nature on Admiralty has known many threats, its trees for decades the particular envy of loggers throughout Southeast. But despite the long history of people seeking to degrade Admiralty, there exists an equally long history and tradition of people working to defend it. This past week, I had the privilege of meeting the four individuals adding yet another chapter to this story of wilderness stewardship on Admiralty Island.
The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) project taking place on Admiralty is engaging four youth from around the country in community and conservation work. Sponsored by the Forest Service and supported by the Sitka Conservation Society, this corps has been tasked with initiatives that address the health of Admiralty’s Kootznoowoo wilderness, its community of Angoon, and, hopefully, each YCC’s commitment to conservation, by bringing them into contact and communion with the land. Such connection, SCS has always believed, lies at the essence of environmental ethic and action. Or in other words, the land itself is oftentimes its own most effective advocate, the best thing we can do being simply to bring people out to it. By employing youth to work with our public lands, the YCC program is thus very much aligned with the model of conservation advocacy that SCS has always practiced. And by helping the Forest Service host this corps branch, we have been able to foster these person-place connections with an incredibly important segment of society: the rising generation of potential environmental stewards.
When I arrived in Angoon, the YCCs had just completed construction of a community greenhouse, and were soon to set off for three weeks in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness. There they would be participating in shelter and trail maintenance, non-native plant control, and general restoration and monitoring – projects to which the Forest Service had put the Civilian Conservation Corps over eighty years ago, as part of the New Deal.
Sitting at the doorstep of Kootznoowoo – having just witnessed a whale pass by, listening to the roaring of a sea lion, and sated by the salmonberries we had picked on our hike – I had the chance to talk to the YCCs about their thoughts on the Wilderness, this tradition of stewardship, and the Southeast Alaskan environment in which they were immersed.
Below is some of what each of them had to say:
How much did you know about Wilderness before this program?
Jaxon Collins: Not a lot.
Breeze Anderson: I didn’t know anything.
Elizabeth Crawford: Not really anything.
Travis Maranto: Not very much.
And what do you know and think now?
Jaxon: I know that there are people who have been trying hard their whole lives to keep wilderness intact, and I think other people should try and respect that.
Breeze: I think that to work with nature, in particular these Wilderness areas, is a necessity, and that it needs to be done before we ruin it.
Elizabeth: This landscape already feels as if its home to me.
Travis: I’ve always had a love and respect for nature, but I never truly understood Wilderness as being so free and untrammeled. Just being in this space you immediately sense something special about it.
Why are you excited about the wilderness stewardship work ahead?
Jaxon: It’s just amazing to be one of the first youth groups out here in a while doing this. Maybe it can inspire others who have an interest to take action too.
Breeze: This work gives me hope. Hope that these efforts to conserve can keep going, since they’ve already been going on for so long.
Elizabeth: I just feel very fortunate to have been picked to come here. You need trees to breathe and well, to really do everything. And now here I am standing in their beauty and I get to help protect them. That makes me excited.
Travis: I have such a deep respect and love for wild places, and I don’t think there’s enough of them. In the modern age, humans have been destroying them rapidly. When you think about the millions of years Earth has been here, we’ve only been here a very short period of time, and we’ve already done a great deal to screw it up. I’m here because I want to do a something to fix that, and convince others to do so too.
If there’s one thing you would say to people to convince people that these places are worthy of protection, what would it be?
Jaxon: When you’re out here, you get to forget about all of the worries of life and just be yourself. It’s incredibly freeing.
Breeze: There’s a saying I like which goes: “we think we own the land, when really the land has no owner.” Being out here, in this stunning landscape, I get reminded of that fact. I mean, this place has been here for ages, and to help it stay the way it is rather than destroying it, that’s a powerful thing to be a part of.
Elizabeth: We always say in my family that we only have one Earth. In society we’re always searching for the newer, cooler thing. But why ruin what we already have, what we’ve relied on for all our lives? We need to appreciate and protect our Earth, because it gives us so much we don’t even realize.
Travis: Nature gives so much to us – wood, salmon, sustenance, fresh air – and we’ve been taking these things from nature for thousands of years in a manner that didn’t also destroy it. But now in modern times we’ve just been trashing the ecosystem. And I can participate in that destruction, or I can jump in and help.
Hailing from as nearby as Tenakee Springs, Alaska or as faraway as Mobile, Alabama, these four YCC members represent a diversity of background and experience. But it was clear from our conversations that a commonality of spirit exists amongst them when it comes to caring for and conserving the land. Which comes as good news, because as Matthew Fred Sr., the Tlingit elder of Angoon, bluntly put it, when it comes to conservation, “there are no guarantees. You have to fight for what you want.” Just as we owe Kootznoowoo’s current state to our predecessors who fought to preserve it, generations to come will inherit the landscape that our actions in the present have left to them.
And although wilderness exists in the minds of many an inviolable place, the truth is that these landscapes are not immune to assault. Just this year, an airport has been proposed within the boundaries of Kootznoowoo, and as of a few days ago, Admiralty’s Green's Creek Mine expansion project broke ground, threatening to leach more contaminants into the nearby Wilderness environment as waste product. All of which just serves as a reminder that wilderness work is the responsibility of each successive generation, or at least each generation that continues to find some value, apart from the economic, in these areas. It is unfortunate, but a reality, that lands with many threats require many defenders. Whether you’re examining the specific story of Admiralty, the history of Alaska, or America’s past more broadly, one fact will remain true throughout: the tree one person alone could fell it has taken many people to defend.
On the surface, I admit, this seems a depressing reality. But I wonder if, in some ways, this is actually the condition from which conservation also derives its strength, as it makes conservation, in my mind at least, inherently an act of community – something that requires conversation with the past, cooperative action in the present, and a commitment to fostering stewardship in the caretakers of the future. What I saw during my visit to Angoon was the YCC program doing just that: educating youth about the history of our public lands; engaging them in present preservation efforts; and empowering them to be future conservationists. And thus, while the future of public lands should not be taken for granted, never assumed as assured, of one thing it seems we can be certain: if the YCC is any indication, there remain those out there willing and eager to take on the cause of continued stewardship and service.
The YCC crew, from left to right: Travis, Jaxon, Breeze, and Elizabeth
Be sure to stay updated on the YCC throughout the remainder of the month by way of the SCS Facebook page. Have specific questions about the YCC? Feel free to email to their crew leader, SCS’s own Mike Belitz (firstname.lastname@example.org). And for more on wilderness stewardship at SCS, keep checking our website, or call (907-747-7509) or email (email@example.com) to get involved. We’d love to hear from you!
Halibut caught by factory trawlers await separation from the targeted product. Though thousands of tons of halibut are caught by trawlers each year, the directed fishery is facing closure. ©Paul Logan/HO/The Canadian Press
On June 9th (10th?), Alaskan halibut fishermen, who have seen their individual quotas cut by up to 70% over the last ten years gathered to watch the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC or North Pacific Council) vote on reduced halibut bycatch caps for trawl fleets fishing in the Bering Sea. Fact sheets from ALFA, stories from KCAW, NPFMC’s Environmental Assessment, and our previous blog post all describe the conservation fight over halibut, but here are a few crucial bullet points as a reminder:
Individual halibut quotas in the Bering and Gulf of Alaska have been cut by up to 65% in the last decade.
Last year, seven times as many halibut were caught and discarded as trawl bycatch than were landed in the directed fishery.
The halibut caught as trawl bycatch are overwhelmingly juveniles (60-80% of the halibut caught are under 28” long). More than 70% of juvenile halibut in the Bering Sea eventually migrate to the Gulf of Alaska and as far south as Northern California.
Bottom trawling eliminates seafloor complexity by destroying delicate coral reefs. This habitat destruction means that total mortality of prohibited species from bottom trawling is much higher than the observed bycatch.
Faced with these facts as well as public testimony overwhelmingly supportive of much stricter bycatch caps for Bering Sea trawlers, the North Pacific Council chose to do...not enough.
Here’s what the Council did do:
The NPFMC reduced overall bycatch caps in the Bering Sea by 21%. Specific fisheries took on greater or lesser shares of that reduction. The Amendment 80 fleet, the Seattle-based bottom trawlers long portrayed as the greatest villains in this fight, will shoulder a 25% reduction in their bycatch caps. This will require them to reduce their halibut bycatch by more than 17% from last year, hopefully taking some much needed pressure off the stocks. The Trawl Limited Access sector will only suffer a 15% cut in their bycatch cap, while the Community Development Quotas and the non-trawl pacific cod fishery will both take a 20% reduction in bycatch.
Sounds good so far...
Here’s what the Council didn’t do:
Actually reduce bycatch! While the halibut bycatch cap was reduced by 21%, that new cap is still ABOVE the amount of halibut caught as bycatch in 2014 (which, recall, was 7x the number of fish caught by the directed fishery). The Amendment 80 fleet will be required to reduce their bycatch from 2014’s level, but they will be the only ones to do so.
While it would be easy to dismiss the NPFMC’s ruling as a disappointing but ultimately irrelevant policy mistake affecting communities far away from Sitka Sound, the migratory nature of halibut means that those juveniles scooped up by factory trawlers could very well have ended up on your dinner plate instead. Commercial fishermen in Sitka have already been affected by declining halibut populations, as lower directed fishery allocations reduce the number of halibut Individual Fishing Quota holders can take. It would be unreasonably optimistic to expect that sport and subsistence halibut fishing in the Gulf and Sitka Sound will remain unaffected for much longer.
What are our future opportunities to fix this?
Long-term, halibut’s best hope is consumer education. Bottom trawling is akin to clear-cutting, destroying valuable habitat for decades or centuries. Southeast Alaska banned trawlers in 1998. When Silver Bay Seafoods bought trawl-caught fish in 2012, eight Sitka leaders wrote a public letter to the company asking that they respect the ban on trawling in the future by avoiding trawl products. Silver Bay Seafoods indicated that they would. A local victory, but one that could potentially be replicated across the state. Trawling has been described as “clear-cutting” the ocean floor; the same types of consumers who would think twice about buying wood products from clear-cut old-growth forests or rainforests should also think twice about buying cheap, unsustainably harvested groundfish.
From a policy perspective, the NPFMC is where most of our conservation pressure needs to be focused. As Sitka resident Charlie Wilbur wrote in the Sentinel, “The Council has the ability and moral responsibility to correct this festering problem before halibut become 100 percent utilized as trawl bycatch.” The next North Pacific Council meeting is in October. While an agenda has not been posted yet, the Council indicated at this meeting that halibut bycatch will be on their radar for some time to come. We will be ready.
If you are interested in writing a letter to the NPFMC or learning more about this issue, please contact Esther at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The North Pacific Council. Hardly the most diverse group, but a uniquely powerful one. Visit the NPFMC page for Council member bios.
Every year, trawlers in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) management area catch and discard as much as 7x the number of halibut caught by commercial halibut fishermen in the same region! That halibut is going to waste is bad. That halibut bycatch allowances have not been appreciably lowered even as commercial halibut quotas have been slashed over the last fourteen years is even worse. That halibut bycatch is overwhelmingly juvenile fish who have not yet reproduced is perhaps the worst news of all.
But the Bering Sea is far away from our fisheries here in Sitka Sound, right?
In a word, no. Most juvenile halibut tagged in the Bering Sea are later recovered across the Gulf of Alaska. Some have even been recovered as far south as California. That means that what happens in the BSAI directly affects subsistence and commercial opportunities here.
Large amounts of halibut bycatch would be deplorable under any circumstances, but that's especially true when the populations are declining and trawl bycatch specifically removes immature population.
We have an opportunity to act!
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is meeting in Sitka from June 1st to June 9th. Write the Council a letter by May 26th asking for a 50% reduction in bycatch allowances. Need ideas? ALFA has posted a great halibut fact sheet. Comments should be emailed to email@example.com and should reference Agenda Item C2. You can also sign up to testify to the Council on June 4th or 5th. Find out more about commenting or testifying here. Be sure to attend the meeting to show your support for halibut!
As we continue our tour through the more and less sustainable human uses of herring, we inevitably find ourselves moving from the good (traditional roe on branch harvests) to the bad: the sac roe fishery.
Sac roe, or unlaid herring eggs still in their skein (egg sack), is a delicacy in Japan known as kazunoko. The golden, pear-slice shaped egg skeins are beautiful additions to any sushi plate and have become a relatively high-status gift item for people to eat on New Years or other special occasions. Kazunoko used to be harvested locally, but the Hokkaido/Sakhalin stock collapsed in 1958. Now, most of those eggs come from Sitka. Only certain herring produce high quality kazunoko. As it turns out, Sitka Sound herring have perfect, golden egg skeins with no obvious veins. As we always suspected, we are the best!
We'll admit it - kazunoko is a tantalizingly appetizing product. But is it worth it?
So far this all sounds like just another standard fishery, but with the bonus of people eating the egg sacs too. That would be ideal. Unfortunately, it turns out that the sac roe fishery is astonishingly wasteful and is both directly and indirectly harmful to our salmon populations and fisheries.
But people eat salmon roe too. What makes this so different?
The primary difference between the salmon roe market and the sac roe market is that almost 100% of salmon meat goes to human consumption. “But people eat herring meat all the time!” you may protest. That’s true, but it’s a fraction of the total caught. As discussed, most Sitka Sound herring goes to Japan to supply kazunoko. The Japanese also eat herring meat, but prefer larger fish according to Dr. Shingo Hamada’s recent talk at UAS. Those larger fish come from Togiak, from the North Atlantic, or from the Barents Sea near Norway.
Fair enough. But what exactly makes you label this fishery as “bad” on your sustainability scale?
First, though we mentioned that exports are nothing new to Southeast Alaska, they’re a lot better for our local economies if we can do some of the processing within the region. Much like exporting old-growth trees in the round provides very few jobs beyond local lumberjacks, the way we export herring does not provide many economic opportunities for anyone beyond the fishermen themselves. Kazunoko is a labor intensive and expensive product to extract, so we ship frozen whole fish to Japan to be sorted by sex and dissected. The cost of additional processing here may be too high for the market to bear, but that’s certainly nothing to celebrate here in Sitka.
Industrial sac roe production (left) vs. roe extraction done by local middle school students at this year's Herring Camp. Next year, we'll be sure to put those kids to work!
Secondly, and more egregiously, since our herring are only prized for their sac roe, this fishery collects ~88% bycatch by weight! Why so high? If the meat of our exported fish is not being eaten by people (it isn’t), then the targeted product is only present in 50% of the fish caught, the females, and only makes up about a quarter of their weights at the most. This year was one of the most successful years for our fishermen in terms of roe percentage - up to 14% according to the seiners. Only 86% bycatch! It’s pretty hard to spin such a small reduction in the bycatch amount positively.
If that didn’t make you angry, what happens with that bycatch certainly will. After the kazunoko has been extracted from our herring, the remainder are ground into fish meal. “That’s better than nothing!” you might say. Indeed, it’s certainly preferable to simply dumping the waste, but fish meal should come from actual fishery waste, such as halibut heads, rather than from a wasteful fishery. In this case, the cloud’s silver lining fails disguise all the rain.
A successful set in this year's harvest! Too bad 86% of that biomass goes to waste or to farmed fish.
Fishmeal gets fed to farmed tilapia, shrimp, and salmon all over the world - fish that often compete directly against our wild stocks. This is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Our wild salmon have their preferred dinners seined up, frozen, and sent across the Pacific, where they go to feed farmed salmon somewhere else. That’s a lot of expense and fuel consumption to recreate a food chain that already exists right here in Sitka Sound.
“All in all we’re advocating for more conservative management … we think herring are worth more feeding the ecosystem than they are feeding farmed salmon. We think we need to do a better job, a more conservative job of managing the resource.” -Jeff Feldpausch, Director of the Resource Protection Department, Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
In an ironic, but all-too-typical economic twist, Alaska actually imports fish meal to feed its hatchery salmon. It’s not just a little bit of fish meal, either. Alaska spends $20 million/year to get that feed, primarily from South America. Alaskan salmon do love Peruvian anchovies, but it’s hard to make the argument that the salmon enjoy them more than the Pacific herring they’ve evolved over millennia to eat. At the very least, the bycatch from this inefficient fishery should go directly to our hatchery salmon, giving them back the meals we’ve removed from the local ocean.
Is there any good news?
There are a few bright spots. First, the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Fishery is exclusively a seine fishery. The alternative possible gear in this case would be gillnets, but gillnets do not allow for any live releasing and they increase the potential for non-herring bycatch. Catch and release with seine nets is not without fish stress and mortality, but it definitely beats the near complete mortality and commitment associated with gillnets. Of course, that catch and release temptation can lead captains to “high-grade”, or release sets without a high roe content, but ADF&G Area Biologist Dave Gordon explicitly warned seiners this year against doing that. Seining over gillnetting is not great news, but we’ll take what we can get.
Secondly, we can be happy that our harvest rate is considerably less aggressive than herring harvest rates in Europe. The Barents Sea herring fishery, controlled by Norway, considers harvesting 30%-40% of the biomass to be both conservative and sustainable. Our harvest rate is set between 12% and 20% of the biomass. Does that mean we’re in no danger of overfishing? In a word, no. The only Southeast Alaskan herring stock that still manages to support a herring fishery is Sitka Sound, down from Hobart Bay, Lynn Canal, Auke Bay, Kah Shakes, West Behm Canal in previous decades. Our own stocks are on a pretty significant downward trend, with this year’s quota the lowest since 2003. Is this downward trend due to the commercial fishery? Fish and Game believes that it’s due to low ocean survivability (ocean acidification? global warming?). It’s easy to imagine the fishery being the straw that breaks this camel’s back, though, and with it, the backbone of our marine ecosystem.
Yes, we are more conservative than Norway. No, it does not mean we can rest easy.
How can we improve this?
First, let’s find better things to do with that bycatch than to feed it to Malaysian farmed fish. Best case? We start eating the herring ourselves. If that’s not palatable, let’s at least stop exporting fish meal to feed other nations’ aquaculture projects while simultaneously importing fish meal to feed our own. This is inefficient, carbon intensive, and detrimental to both our wild and NSRAA-supplied salmon. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop.
Second, let’s stop eating sac roe in the first place. Why not consume roe on kelp instead? All of the deliciousness of herring eggs without the unwelcome spice of guilt.
Finally, let’s consider the possibility that we are overfishing our stock and consider reducing our harvest rate. Forage fish are worth much more left in the water than they are on the market. Let’s bow to economic and ecosystem pressures and leave more herring where they belong: feeding salmon and whales in Sitka Sound.
Whales feasting on herring © Bethany Goodrich
Milt along the Sitka coastline.
The State Board of Fisheries (BoF) met this week to discuss fishery policies and regulations for Southeast and Yakutat finfish. Sound boring? It wasn’t! Herring policy debates were especially animated. This year, the conservation-minded proposals of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska butted up directly against commercial proposals submitted by the wryly named Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance. Every proposal had a counterproposal and every proposal had its champions. Faced with an array of options and with very little hard science to base decisions on, the Board of Fisheries opted to leave the sac-roe status quo intact, voting down every change put before them.
Was this a success story for industry? A success story for conservationists? A bitter pill to swallow for both sides? The continued decline of herring populations or their future recovery will answer that question. The clear success here is the Board of Fisheries process, which heavily emphasizes public participation and comment. Should we be genuinely excited about so much democracy in resource management? Absolutely!
How does the BoF Process Work?
The Board of Fisheries consists of seven members appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. The governor’s appointees are chosen for their knowledge of fisheries and interest in public affairs, but with eye toward representing all interest groups (broadly broken into commercial, sport, and traditional). The BoF is advised by ADF&G scientists, but is not typically made of up scientists itself.
The strength of the BoF is the degree to which the Board’s meetings draw on public opinion. Comments and testimony were heavily solicited before and during the meeting. The real public process, though, is the “Committee of the Whole”. This was an opportunity for everyone present at the BoF meeting to reach a spontaneous agreement. No time limits, no set order, just discussion between proponents and opponents of each proposal. Unfortunately, unlike a round-table discussion where participants are speaking directly to each other, the open-room format with the Board as an audience seemed to inspire participants to perform for the Board. As salmon troller Eric Jordan pointed out, this part of the BoF is an opportunity for groups to avoid an arbitrary and often unwanted decision by the Board, but if participants don’t have the “fear of the seven dark angels...they have no incentive to come to an agreement.” With herring, this was especially apparent. Traditional and industry supporters upped their rhetoric and moved further apart on every proposal, each fearing compromise far more than the unknown of the Board’s decisions. Does this reflect a broken Board process? I think not. The need for real public input far outweighs the disappointment of watching increasing polarization between groups and with less emotionally-charged fisheries, the Committee of the Whole was productive.
After public orations and discussions, the Board deliberates and decides. Now, the public is the passive audience, and the Board restricts their questions to ADF&G staff members. Happily, Board members frequently cited written and oral public comment as well as the open discussions.
Why do we want this to be democratic?
It’s a reasonable question. Why would we want the ultimate decisions about herring fisheries to be made not by scientists, but by, in a worst case scenario, people who are blatantly biased non-experts, thinly disguised industry reps, random members of the public, and arbitrarily chosen government appointees?
First, in many ways natural resources like herring are public goods. Proper management of herring doesn't just benefit sac-roe seiners or roe-on kelp fishermen, it benefits the entire community. Properly managed, herring provide direct economic benefits to the fishermen who harvest them, indirect economic benefits to salmon fishermen, food for the marine ecosystem, a reason for whales to return to Sitka Sound and bring their entourage of tourists, cultural benefits for traditional users… the list is endless. Given this diversity of user groups, would anything other than the messy, publically accessible process of the BoF give adequate representation to all parties?
More importantly, there is no such thing as pure “science-based” resource management. Bias is endemic to the process. Even by calling herring a “resource”, we have introduced a bias toward harvesting and economic exploitation. By contrast, nobody talks about krill as a resource even though they occupy a similar trophic level to herring. After we decide to prosecute a herring fishery, we look to science to tell us how many herring are returning, what levels of harvest are sustainable, and why the population is fluctuating. Science cannot tell us whether seiners or gill-netters should have more of an opportunity to fish. Science does not inform the discussion about whether the cultural benefits of traditional roe on branch harvesting can be replaced by increased access to roe on kelp. Science has no opinion on the number of herring whales should be allocated given concerns of fishermen, nor can science quantify the full inspiration and ecological benefits of having a healthy whale population in Sitka Sound. Science, in short, tells us how much pie we have to manage and how many groups want a piece of said pie, but it says nothing about who “deserves” the largest slice. Resource management lies at the intersection of scientific knowledge and the needs and wants of interested user groups. Who has the right to judge between two groups, each of whom are asking for a larger allocation of herring? Only a collective, democratic body. In Alaska, only the Board of Fisheries.
Do you care about the future of the Tongass National Forest? Do you want to learn more about tiny houses? Or ocean acidification?
Join the staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society for an evening filled with great food, conversation, and idea sharing. The We Love the Tongass Gathering will take place on Sunday, February 15 from 4-6 pm at Swan Lake Senior Center (402 Lake Street). Staff and board of the Sitka Conservation Society will discuss tiny homes, local wood, climate change, 4-H programming, and Tongass timber sales. Bring your ideas about how to promote sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska. Let your voice be heard!
This annual meeting is free and open to the public. For more information call SCS at 747-7509 or firstname.lastname@example.org
SCS would like to congratulate the Sitka Tribe of Alaska for their success with the Federal Subsistence Board! For more good news about STA, read our previous blog post here.
Herring making the swim to Sitka Sound this season have a new place to spawn safely: the federal waters around Makhnati Island. The Federal Subsistence Board approved FP15-17, submitted by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, at their January 21-23 Anchorage meeting. The proposal closes ~800 acres of federal waters to commercial herring harvesters, although traditional and sport harvesters will still be welcome. But this isn’t a story of sport and subsistence desires trumping the sac-roe industry’s concerns - this new protected area is good news for everyone from fishermen to roe-on-kelp enthusiasts to the fish themselves. Think a win-win-win is impossible? Think again!
How could the exclusion of one group of herring harvesters from Makhnati Island possibly benefit everyone? Let’s start with the herring. Like other forage fish, herring are one of the primary pathways for energy stored in phyto- and zooplankton to nourish our favorite marine predators such as salmon. According to coastal archeologist Iain McKechnie, “They are the central node of the marine ecosystem. They aren’t the base, they aren’t the top, but they are the thing through which everything else flows.” Herring’s critical role in northern Pacific waters was quantified by the Canada Department of Oceans and Fisheries, who calculated that herring make up 62% of the diet of Chinook salmon, 68% of Coho's, 71% of lingcod's, and 32% of harbor seal's. Their impact isn’t limited to the waterline either. In British Columbia, coastal black bears, wolves, and shorebirds feed on herring eggs every spring.
With everyone in agreement that herring are a cornerstone of marine and coastal food webs, you might think we would know everything there is to know about their populations and survival rates from year to year. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. Forage fish are characterized by high reproductive rates, transient populations, and high susceptibility to both top-down population forcing (e.g., too many predators) and bottom-up forcing (e.g., not enough plankton). From a management perspective, that means we have high levels of uncertainty about the number of returning herring from year to year. The Makhnati Island protected area will serve as a buffer against inaccurate stock assessments by providing a small refuge for herring to spawn relatively unmolested.
Besides the herring, the other obvious beneficiaries of the Makhnati Island closure are the traditional and sport herring harvesters. Traditional egg harvesters in particular should be excited since subsistence harvesters have only met their herring egg needs 50% of the time in recent years. Happily, Makhnati Island area is easily accessible to all Sitka residents. Sport fishermen will also benefit from decreased competition with commercial boats.
The real surprise is that the Makhnati Island commercial closure could be good news even for the sac-roe industry. Marine protected areas have been established by politicians from all political stripes, such as George W. Bush’s creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in 2009 or President Obama’s expansion of that reserve in 2014. Part of the goal of those marine reserves is increase overall fish populations in waters open to fishermen. Sound far fetched? It’s worked before. The yellow tang population was crashing in Hawaii in 2000, prompting officials to close 35% of the available waters around the Big Island to tang harvesters. Only ten years later and with no reduction in closure areas, 70,000 more tang per year were being exported and the value of the fishery had increased from $745,000 to $1.27 million. Not a bad precedent for the herring industry to look to!
What's next for herring?
If you’re as excited about the potential positive effects of the Makhnati Island closure as we are, be sure to follow the happenings at the State Board of Fisheries at the end of February! Find the herring proposals here and submit your written or online comments to the Board by February 9th.
Terrible news for the Tongass this week: Around 70,000 acres of the Tongass are being turned over to Sealaska for development.
As Davey Lubin told the Sitka Sentinel this week, “I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized. It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”
This week’s developments show that not even our National Forests are protected from corporate control. Congress and the American public need to give this issue more scrutiny. Read the article below to hear SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms’s take on the Sealaska Lands Bill. The article below was printed in the Sitka Sentinel on Monday, December 15.
By SHANNON HAUGLAND, Sentinel Staff Writer
A bill transferring 70,000 acres of land from the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corp. passed Congress on Friday.
Rodman Bay (Photo provided by Sitka Conservation Society)
“It has taken seven years, but I’m proud to say that we finally completed the land conveyance for Southeast Alaska’s nearly 20,000 Native shareholders, and at the same time ensured that the region’s remaining timber mills have timber,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a news release, following the vote on Friday.
The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act was included in the bipartisan package of lands bills approved Friday as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It provides Sealaska with 70,075 acres to finalize the transfer of land owed to the Native shareholders under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“Some 43 years after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal government will finally finish paying the debt we owe Natives for the settlement of their aboriginal land claims,” Murkowski said in the announcement.
The land transfer includes more than 68,000 acres available for logging, including land in Rodman Bay and Sinitsin Cove near Sitka, as well as 1,009 acres for renewable energy resources and recreational tourism, and 490 acres of Native cemetery and historic sites.
The legislation also includes about 152,067 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas to protect salmon and wildlife habitat, Murkowski said. The bill goes next to the president for his signature.
Representatives of Sealaska Corp. were unavailable for comment.
Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines said he was pleased by the news, which he ran across this weekend on Facebook.
“I’m 100 percent pleased, the council is pleased,” he said. He noted that the STA Tribal Council passed a resolution last week in support of the compromise legislation proposed by Murkowski.
Baines said he believes the legislation will be beneficial to tribal citizens.
“I hope it will mean an improved economic development for the corporation which will mean more dividends for the tribal citizens,” he said. “I hope it will mean jobs in Sitka but as far as I know there hasn’t been any jobs from the regional corporation.”
Asked whether he believes the land will be developed and logged any differently than in the past, Baines said, “I hope they’ve learned their lesson. They’ve done that before – and it’s taken decades to bring back more trees that they can log.”
Sitka Conservation Society Andrew Thoms said he was disappointed by the news.
“Anytime that public lands are given to a private corporation, it’s a loss for everyone,” he said. “It’s going to mean 70,000 acres of some of the best timber land in the Tongass put into Sealaska hands, and the old-growth stands they’ve been given are some of the best remaining stands of cedar left on the Tongass. The burden is on Sealaska now to do what’s best for the shareholders in the region.”
He called old-growth cedar a “cultural treasure of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.”
“As Sealaska now owns those best stands of cedar, are they going to continue to foster that connection, or will it be exported to Asian markets?” Thoms said. “It’s about more than just (habitat). The cedar trees in those stands are thousands of years old, and they won’t grow back in our lifetime.”
He cited Rodman Bay, on the north end of Baranof Island (30 miles north of Sitka), and Sinitsin Cove on North Kruzof (25 miles northeast of Sitka) as two areas closest to Sitka that are identified as “economic development” lands in the transfer.
Clarice Johnson, a Sealaska shareholder, said she was opposed to the lands transfer as proposed. (Johnson works at the nonprofit SCS but specified that she was speaking only as a shareholder.)
“I think there are a number of shareholders who are supportive of receiving our full land selection but not the way it was put in the rider, and they don’t think it will be much benefit to the average shareholder,” she said. “Possibly because Sealaska has lost so much money, they’ll probably cut the land quickly; and a large portion of any natural resource development in regional corporation land will be shared with other regional corporations.”
She noted that this provision – calling for regional corporations to share profits – has made it possible for Sealaska to pay out dividends, since the local regional corporation has not been profitable in recent years. She added that she believes the main beneficiaries of the land transfer and development of the lands will end up being the corporation’s board and staff through salaries and other compensation.
Johnson said she believes one of many results of the transfer will be the inadequate protection of karsts in Southeast.
“There is no protection compared to the U.S. Forest Service,” she said.
Johnson said that although only two “economic development” land selections are near Sitka there are others she believes are designated as “historic sites” including Kalinin Bay. She said the 15-acre site is the fifth largest historic site in the land selection.
Johnson said she’s concerned about what may happen at this location. “They can’t log, and they can’t mine there, but they can develop it,” she said.
Davey Lubin, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., five times in the last six years to testify against the Sealaska lands bill, said he was “highly disappointed” with the news.
“I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized,” he said. “It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”
The Sealaska lands bill is separate from legislation to transfer 11 acres near Redoubt Lake to Sealaska, which is now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, Baines said.
Do you like wild Alaskan salmon? Then you should also like stream buffers.
What exactly is a stream buffer? It’s the area of land on either side of a stream, river or lake that is excluded from logging when the Forest Service designs timber sales. Stream buffers are extremely important because they ensure that old growth trees are left near salmon spawning and rearing sites. Old growth trees shade salmon spawning grounds and help regulate stream flow to facilitate future salmon runs. Their roots also protect salmon spawning and rearing areas from erosion, without them soils and sediments would wash into the stream choking the water and smothering the eggs. Stream buffers make it possible for delicious wild salmon to appear on your dinner plate!
Want to learn more about stream buffers? Check out the fact sheet below. Also, please take a moment (it will only take 30 seconds) to send an email to Chief Tidwell, the Chief of the Forest Service. Ask him to protect wild Alaskan salmon by prioritizing salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices. Just copy and paste the blurb below (make sure to fill in your state, name, and address)!
Thanks so much for helping to protect wild salmon, the most vital resource of the Tongass National Forest.
BCC: email@example.com (BCC me so that we can use your letter as evidence that people are writing to him)
SUBJECT: I support your efforts on the Tongass Transition
Dear Chief Tidwell:
I am an (type your state here) constituent that commends your efforts to protect the wild salmon of Alaska through the Tongass Transition.
The Tongass Transition puts the focus back on salmon and healthy intact forest ecosystems. In other parts of the country, our lack of foresight and the misuse of our resources have significantly impacted salmon populations. Let’s not see the same thing happen in Alaska. We must work to protect salmon habitat and restore damaged salmon streams. Please prioritize salmon in Forest Service budgets and management practices to help us sustain this vital resource.
Chief Tidwell, please continue your work on implementing the Tongass Transition.
Thank you for your time and for protecting our salmon,