by Marissa Wilson
Since the winter solstice, I’ve been fixated on a concept articulated poetically and convincingly by one of my favorite thinkers of these times, Robin Wall Kimmerer. In her essay The Serviceberry, the Indigenous botanist describes the shortcomings of scarcity-based concepts of economy, weaving together other cultural frameworks for describing how we provide for ourselves while highlighting a growing economic theory called ecological economics, which “expands the conventional definition by working to integrate Earth’s natural systems and human values.”
Robin poses something that is at once radical and overt: relationships are most firmly rooted in cooperation, not competition; exchanges hinge upon abundance and are offered in terms of Gift.
After one year directing AMCC, time flavored by a global pandemic and social upheaval over systemic racism, I was primed to critically rethink all social systems I inherited. Reimagining market economies as gift economies felt like launching a raft into a quiet current potentially occupied by all other sentient life.
Like Robin and her serviceberries, I was able to witness this different kind of economy during the abundance of summer, except through a currency abundant to this region: sockeye.
AMCC’s board chair, Josh Wisniewski, set nets at Barabra Point and picks his nets by hand. The Dena'ina name for this place translates to "where spruce extends." Despite Josh’s regular presence at these nets, seals also frequent the sites to enjoy his gift of fish arrested by a veil of gillnet. They always seem to leave a couple marked with a single small gash, a designation that Josh has determined means it’s meant for the broader community. This is where I’ve developed a role.
Twice a week, Josh motors his catch over to Coal Point for processing, where we meet and talk about the livelihood that brings so many of us together. Then I bring the “chosen” fish home and begin processing: fillets are carefully carved away, with the seal-bitten strips and innards dropped in a bucket for friends’ dogs. The heads and backbones are set aside to be turned into soup stock and added to compost after. Nothing goes to waste, and everything is usually gone in a day. Recipients of the jewel-toned, vitamin-packed, protein-rich flesh are elders, the mothers of newborns, and folks who support our local food system. I bring vegetables and baked goods back down to the dock, returning the flow of Gift back to the ocean.
I can’t possibly describe what it means to be a conduit of this kind of wealth. It is at once physical, emotional and spiritual. It is wellness. It is community. It touches the eternal.
Indeed, the most magical things in this world evade capture. Just ask any fisherman their “one that got away” story, and prepare yourself to hear a couple. And yet, this is the purpose of our advocacy at AMCC: to illuminate our reciprocal relation to this generative planet as essential and irreplaceable, and hold onto it for dear life - for each other.
Accounting for small-scale fishing businesses in terms of a market economy, and asking for robust scientific study around the impacts of extraction on the larger ecosystem, is the best way to fit into the systems of management that we have inherited.
But how do we honor True Wealth outside of these frameworks?
The quieter part of AMCC’s community is the fabric of shared culture. Its textures and hues vary, depending on people and place. We describe what we collectively strive for as “small-scale” and “community-based” harvest, because at some point it just needs to be named. But it’s more than that, right? More than the business counterpart to industrial-scale factory trawlers gobbling biomass by the metric ton in the name of Efficiency?
Last month, I got to join Josh for an opener. We skiffed up to a net, turned off the engine, and pulled ourselves by hand along the cork line. Water slapped gently at the wooden hull, an eagle called from the shore, and the web whispered soft promises while it was gathered, hand over hand, as two grinning two-leggeds pulled fish from the depths.
Not once did I see a seal, but we found their gifts and brought them home.