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Is there an answer to keeping Alaska's fish stocks sustainable?

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
NOAA / Kris Cieciel

As Alaska's fish politics continue to roil -- from subsistence rights to king salmon disasters -- a University of Alaska Fairbanks ecologist is offering an alternative view on what sustainability in Alaska looks like.

Human ecologist Phil Loring's recent publication in the journal Conservation Biology claims that mainstream assessment of fisheries sustainability is somewhat flawed in its focus.

"We tend to think about people as parasites in ecosystems," Loring said. "With the idea that whatever benefits people -- in this case fishing -- will necessarily harm the environment. I believe the future of fisheries management lies in learning to think about people's relationship with the environment in different ways."

The focus of sustainability as a one-species-at-a-time issue misinterprets the relationship of a society to its resources as one of just take, and no give.

"In the paper," Loring said, "I reference historical Native American and Alaska Native systems, in which people contributed to the structure and sustainability of ecosystems through fishing and other resource harvesting activities."

Despite the contention found naturally within its management, Alaska's commercial fisheries are widely held as a success story, Loring said, but Alaskans know first-hand that there are major issues disturbing the water.

Loring cited the concern for long-term food security and the disenfranchisement of subsistence rights for Native Alaska fishermen, two issues that beg for reevaluation of Alaska's fisheries paradigm.

The heated testimony at the Alaska Federation of Natives' 2012 convention spoke to the importance of both of these topics to Alaska's rural communities.

Rural residents and tribal delegates called for major changes to fisheries management, greater protection for subsistence rights and more aggressive science into population declines that threaten the fisheries web.

High on that list of scientific questions is the decline of Chinook salmon, which closed fisheries across the state this summer and in one instance put several dozen fishermen in legal trouble after they chose to exercise their subsistence rights despite restrictions.

"I provide three examples that suggest that the purported sustainability of these fisheries may be an illusion," Loring said. "Challenges like high and rising food insecurity in rural Alaska, and recent king salmon failures across the state highlight the need for a better approach."

Loring believes Alaska's marine life and their human dependents would be better served if management were based on the needs of whole ecosystems. Single-species assessments and goals neglect the bigger picture, he said, a picture that must take into account human consumption as a natural part of that ecosystem.

"That approach results in oversimplified notions regarding tradeoffs between conservation of a fishery and human benefits," Loring said. "I argue for a new philosophy of management rooted in concepts like food security and ensuring that Alaskans have equitable access to locally caught seafood."

This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. 

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com