Four bald eagles flew playfully with each other in the sun’s last rays before the 11 p.m. dusk. Their wings flapped quickly as they chirped in a high-pitched juvenile manner. It struck me as odd that the powerful predator emblemized as the national bird had such a disarming tweet, and not the fierce screech normally associated with birds of prey. In many places in Alaska bald eagles are more common than seagulls. Yet for most in the United States, the sighting of a bald eagle is an once-in-a-lifetime experience, if at all. Protecting these stunning, mostly unseen, creatures makes sense to most because they taken on an unreal—unicorn-esque—status.
“Goddamn glorified vultures,” said my former captain as he saw me admiring the birds. One swooped down and snatched a small pink salmon out of the water with its talons. “Thief! It’s a goddamn thief! Stealing dollars out of my pocket!” he hollered in a husky tenor.
A teenaged crewmate laughed and told me they’re the best trap bait for minks and martins. I gave a look of disgust, that egged him on and he delved into stories of blasting raptors with shotguns. Nonetheless fur—wild fur—subsidizes more than a few incomes in Alaska—not to mention generous government programs that many who perceive our northern most state as a libertarian bastion conveniently overlook.
The year prior we were on anchor in an isolated bay off of Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. Rising from the waters were primordial coniferous rainforests that lead into steep rock faces topped by snow-covered jagged peaks. It’s a sensory experience that never gets old; two of my favorite things coming together at once—salt water and snow covered mountains. I noticed a lone stellar sea lion swimming in the water 30 yards away from the boat. Before I was fully able to take in the moment I heard the pop of a .17 caliber rifle followed by a plume of blood and brain that created a crimson sheen on the dark water. That was the first time I witnessed the murder of a sea mammal. I was shocked and disturbed. I contemplated quitting, thereby quickly ending my burgeoning life as a fisherman.
Sea lions and other marine mammals eat fish and don’t pay for them; therefore, they are the enemy of many fishermen. Some won’t hesitate to pop one if they know they’re not within close vicinity of any maritime authorities: Coast Guard, Fish and Game or State Troopers. In Alaska pigs fly.
Until recently Stellar sea lions in Southeast Alaska were federally protected and were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In late-2013 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) removed the eastern population of stellar sea lion (from Prince William Sound, Alaska to northern California) from the endangered species list. For many urban environmentalists, the removal of the animal from its classification as endangered wasn’t met with celebration of species recovery, rather with condemnation of the politician or regulating agencies involved.
There’s an all too typical complaint in diners, bars and boats in Alaska: city folk from the lower forty-eight want to tell people in Alaska how to live. Over a dinner of fresh-caught halibut and spot prawns my former captain told the story of the small town Wrangell, where the boat was based. Bill Clinton’s Roadless Rule—one of the final executive orders of his administration—killed its economy and the economies of many other small towns like it, he said. The rule banned the construction of new roads in national forests, ultimately ending the expansion of nearly all logging operations in Southeast Alaska.
Clinton was an easy scapegoat for the captain’s republican worldview—just as democrats give George W. Bush full blame for the financial meltdown in 2008, ignoring policies of financial liberalization pushed by the Clinton administration. While the Roadless Rule was the final nail in the industry’s coffin, it was actually 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act, signed into law by George H.W. Bush, which delivered the coffin to Wrangell’s timber economy.
Nonetheless, had I let it slip that I was among a dozen chainsaw-wielding activists who gave George W. Bush a satirical 12-chiansaw-salute outside of the National Forest Service California headquarters for overturning Clinton’s executive order thereby opening up more than 50 million of acres of national forests to logging, I would have quickly had to find another job.
Yet I was given pause my skipper’s words. The fact that with a single stroke of a pen, a president can bring many small hardworking towns to their knees, destroy livelihoods and forced people to leave their hometowns in search of work for a pieces of policy championed by the Sierra Club, among many other mainstream environmental organizations, made it all-too-clear why people become so indignant about environmental policy.
While I have given a few extreme examples, fishermen are on a whole sensible. The word ‘environmentalist’ is an epithet for many for it brings to mind the despised Big NGO, yet ‘conservationist’ is much more agreeable. Those who make their living harvesting the bounty of the sea want to preserve its assets for the rest of their working lives and for those of their children. The same skipper who regularly popped seals and sea lions got irritated when he saw people throw trash in the water. “We have to make our living from these waters. I don’t know why the hell anyone would want to fuck it up,” he said to me as we noticed someone drop a marine battery into Chatham Strait. The irony of his actions was completely lost on him. Polluting and killing were, and are, completely separate acts in his mind, one weeds out economic competitors, the other ruins the whole.
If the Occupy Movement did anything—outside of displaying collective rage against vast inequality and the dominance has Wall Street has over our lives—it has brought ideas of direct democracy and autonomous, horizontal organizing away from the fringes of the anarcho-left to the general progressive dialogue, from the outside-in.
Working for community control over resources has long been fashionable—well before the emergence of the Occupy Movement. Those of the American Left—myself included—have long been inspired by non-authoritarian, horizontally-organized, autonomous movements of the Zapatistas in rural Chiapas, Mexico and the worker reclaimed factories and workplaces in urban Argentina, amongst others.
So should we then work to empower my old skipper who loves to kill sea mammals and my old crewmate who likes to use bald eagle as trap bait to have greater control over their livelihoods’ and local resources? And what if their local communities decided by consensus that sea otters could be killed at will and eagles were up for a bounty—20 bucks per beak. From 1917 to 1953 the territorial government of Alaska paid a bounty of that ranged from 50 cents to $2 for 120,195 bald eagles over the 36 years.
The bounty program seemed popular amongst many Alaskans at the time. “The eagle is a curse to the rest of the animal kingdom and the sooner it is exterminated the better off the game will be” was a statement made in The Valdez Miner in 1920. The early bounty bills in Alaska were titled, “An Act to preserve the food supply of Alaska.”
Today it is the sea otter that is public enemy number one for those fishing for Dungeness crab in Southeast Alaska. These cute and cuddly creatures are a lot like humans, that is, we are both like swarms of roaming locusts. Sea otters don’t find short-term equilibrium in their local habitat. Once they enter a bay or inlet they will gorge themselves on crab and clams until they exhaust the resource. An adult sea otter will eat up to 14 Dungeness crabs a day. I have seen otters come up with a crab, take a bite and then throw half a meat-filled shell into the water. That’s like tearing up a five-dollar bill in front of a fisherman.
It’s heartening that sea otters are now flourishing in Southeast Alaska, reinhabiting areas that have not seen their species since Russian and American fur traders wiped out the Southeast population in the mid-1800’s. In the 1960’s biologists transplanted 400 otters from elsewhere in Alaska to Southeast, since that time their population has increased in excess of 20 percent per year, according to a radio interview with two marine biologists in 1999. They are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and only the western population, from the base of the Alaskan Peninsula west through the Aleutian Islands, is listed under the ESA.
“We have every reason to believe that if the otter population continues to expand…it will have a very large impact on the crab population. We would expect the number of crabs to decline dramatically,” said Jim Taggart, a crab biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in the same radio interview. Biologists went on to say the Dungeness crab population will likely return to historical, pre-Russian, levels. Through inference we could assume that those levels would mean the end commercial Dungeness crab fishing in the region.
Not surprisingly, yet no less disturbingly, some fisherman—risking steep fines and jail time—will kill as many sea otters as they can to keep them from reentering areas where they make their living. These fisherman, both Alaska Native and white, see themselves on the front lines protecting their livelihoods in a fishery that brings more than $4 million to the region annually.
Only Alaskan Natives are legally allowed to hunt sea mammals for subsistence and handicrafts, under exemptions in both the MMPA and ESA. Around 100 sea otters are harvested annually by Alaskan Natives in Southeast Alaska, out of a total population of approximately 48,000, according to the Alaska Sea Otter and Stellar Sea Lion Commission. The handicrafts can be legally sold to both Natives and non-Native as long as they are significantly altered from the tanned hide and are not mass-produced.
While as a commercial fisherman I kill things for a living, I am opposed—with some exceptions—to taking the life of another creature that is not intended to be eaten by myself or someone else, although federal policy doesn’t always take this stance. Last year, federal authorities sanctioned the culling of 92 California sea lions—protected under the MMPA—below the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam because the local population had eaten between 1.5 and 4 percent of returning salmon.
As I write this I do not come with answers, I simply try to expose the incongruencies of form and content. Most environmental policy that pertains to the remote regions of the United States is mandated from the top-down. Yet at the same time, many of those same people and institutions work for, or at least espouse, an ethic of decision making from the bottom up—everyone loves a “grassroots” movement. But what if this grassroots movement were to preserve the Dungeness crab by killing a significant population of sea otters?
There is no ideological purity: empower people and people will try to sustain their livelihoods first and their environment second. The nexus of ecology and the human experience is the nexus of conservation and livelihood.