Currents, Fishing, Oil, Place and the Gulf of Alaska
by Josh Wisniewski
Click here to listen to the author's beachside audio recording of this essay.
This morning, like most, begins with a quick 5-minute walk from my small cabin through the woods and down to the beach. One shouldn't require a reason for a morning walk. While it pulls me away from the laptop, emails, report writing and "other duties as required," I feel the need to make a job out of this morning walk. I fish here where I live. I fish set net sites I can walk to from my home. Farther out in deeper water I set skates for halibut. I'm a skiff fisherman, I fish alone.
I go down to the beach during the quiet predawn light to observe, to watch, and to slowly come to know this place where I live. I watch the changing currents; the way eddies form around points and shape of the beach at a minus three tides and high-water mark of a 20 ft tide with a 20-knot westerly. Occasionally I think maybe I can understand how salmon move around these points, I even think I have an inkling of awareness for how the currents are running too. However, that typically dissolves quickly when, seemingly out of nowhere I see my net half-sunk on a rock that I didn't even know was there. "Damn, I knew I should have walked the beach during that -4 tide." Lessons learned the hard way are not soon forgot.
One of my fishing neighbors further up the bay has been fishing this area with his family for over 30 years, and is a master in the study of currents. I'll see him on my way to and from nets watching and observing how his nets are holding. Later, I watch him adjust the placement and angles for his anchors. Micro adjustments really. When I ask he tells me those adjustments can result in huge differences in his catch. I watch him watching. I want to know what he sees. Not simply to know, but to see what he sees; to develop my own small emerging flow of local knowledge, and know this place a little, living here, fishing here, to become of here.
In his small and eloquently written book entitled The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez writes that true wealth comes through the accumulation of local knowledge, for through developing local knowledge one can come to comprehend notions of home and place, and our "attendant responsibilities."
Our human responsibilities to the places we live is a recurring thread of reflection for me. I think a lot about my responsibilities and how to meet them. This begins by acknowledging how privileged I am to be here in Denaina and Sugpiaq country, to live on the shores of Kachemak Bay and to make a humble living harvesting from these waters. I acknowledge it’s a gift to have a freezer filled with salmon, halibut, cod, rockfish and shellfish both for myself and to share.
I've also come to understand that my responsibilities include doing as little harm to that which sustains me physically, economically and socially, and brings beauty and wonder into my life. The responsibility to do the least harm includes human persons and other-than-human sentient beings as well. Then there is the responsibility, built on causing the least amount of harm to go a step further still: the responsibility to protect. As I look out at the Bay this morning counting sea ducks and listening to a loon cry as the tide spills over a small reef, I can see the mountains across the Inlet. I can see where the oil development company Hilcorp has selected lease blocks, across the mouth of Kachemak Bay. They have bid on several blocks within the one-million-acre lease sale area in the undeveloped wildness of Lower Cook Inlet.
Like many before and after me I found home in this Kachemak Bay country as a teenager hitchhiking down here and witnessing the Bay, and the Kenai Range for the first time from the back of a truck cresting the hill into Homer. I knew right then this was the place. I also knew it wasn't enough to see the view from Homer. I needed to go deeper, across the Bay to be in and part of it, to become it. This is ongoing of course and it has taken time.
Now, knowing of this pending lease I can't help but see oil and gas drilling platforms interrupting the view of Iliamna, and Augustine as I look across the Inlet. I see the bright offshore lights shining 24 hours a day where there has never been any before. I see and hear the increase in vessel traffic and helicopter flyovers. I see the industrialization of the land and soundscape at the expense of this rich vibrant wild ecosystem. I imagine being on one of my set net sites in the early morning dawn waiting for the 6:00 am set, watching flare fires and black smoke rising from platforms reshaping the western skyline.
The anxious churning in my gut is real and the tear in the corner of my eye isn’t from the wind. The burning of excess oil and gas through flare fires, dumping of toxic discharges, the forage fish, and pteropods stunned or killed by seismic exploration and the now unencumbered viewshed defiled are gut-wrenchingly painful to envision.
Destruction of a place through a thousand cumulative impacts is horrible enough to comprehend. But a spill; I close my eyes tightly, I open them and study the horizon watching the tide continue to come in. I envision a winter gale with freezing spray, heaving icing, and a catastrophic failure on an oil platform. I watch with horror as large oil slick moves into the bay. I remember the stories I've heard about the clean-up of the Exxon Valdez spill; how oil spread down along the Gulf coast past Kodiak even. I remember reading about the impact the clean-up had on the environment which, in many cases, caused more long-term damage than the spill itself. A friend told me about being in Prince William Sound five years later. He was getting ready to cook and eat a rock fish he caught when the elderly Sugpiaq man he was with said, "No... old-fish" suggesting foods like long-lived rockfish were no longer safe to eat. I remember the stories of people cleaning tar balls off the beaches here and throughout Kachemak Bay, and of oil booms strung across the mouth of our area bays.
I sit down. This hasn't happened yet. It might never happen, but the anxious churning is still there. The news this past week is that the Biden administration issued an executive order calling for a pause on all oil and gas lease sales on federal lands and waters. "Cool," I think, but pauses are temporary, and anyone who has followed politics over the past four years knows presidential executive orders can be reversed faster than they can be implemented. Politics will come into play, and a pause isn't permanent protection. That is where there is work that needs doing.
A pause is a directive to get organized.
The current starts to slow a bit as it fills in the small bight where I'm sitting. The undirected flow of my own thoughts drift back towards my fascination with currents, not just those off the beach where I am standing but throughout the broader Cook Inlet watershed; the interconnectedness of the right here, to the Cook Inlet Region and the arc of the Gulf of Alaska.
To the north, expansive river systems drain into the upper inlet: the Susitna, Matanuska, Kenai, and Kasilof rivers laden with glacial sediments, greet a saltwater ecosystem. Here in the estuary of Kachemak Bay, another 11 glacial systems are drained. Strong tidal currents transport this nutrient-rich freshwater into the Gulf of Alaska.
Far to the south of here, 40-50 degrees latitude north, there is a strong offshore current running west to east: the mighty North Pacific Current. As it flows westward toward the British Columbia coast, it splits and runs north and south. The California current flows south along the west coast. The Alaska current continues north along the Southeast Alaska coast. It turns west along the central Gulf coast and moves closer to shore.
Around the mouth of Cook Inlet, deep upwellings from the Gulf are drawn into the Inlet by strong tidal currents. Here off the mouth of Kachemak Bay, these nutrient-rich upwellings mix with the sediment-rich surface waters in a series of large gyres. Every time we have big winter storms and my cabin shakes in a big gust of wind and the cat crawls under my chair, I think, "How amazing, the Gulf ecosystem is at work right outside my door." These enriched Gulf/Inlet waters then spin into the big Gulf of Alaska Gyre and are carried down toward Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula. The Lower Inlet is a mixing zone, an artery pumping nutrients into the heart of the Gulf.
I watch the current form an eddy inside the point now, and see the local and the bioregional are one.
While reading the Environmental Impact Statement for this lease sale I've seen a map modeling the trajectory of a possible spill event. It is frightening. The strong and powerful currents that distribute nutrients throughout the Gulf are the same currents that would disperse pollutants and an oil spill throughout the entire Gulf of Alaska.
The thought of the destruction of this biologically rich and functioning ecosystem– one of the few places in North America where all the components of the environment are intact and interacting, just as they were before lost Europeans washed ashore here – is devastating. A wild healthy marine ecosystem is wealth beyond any corporate earnings. I cannot fathom how anyone could look out at this wild landscape which supports local fishing and tourist economies, founded upon the health and aesthetic beauty of this country and think oil extraction would be a good fit; that such development is worth the risk. And, of course the risk is placed on us locals. We must carry it.
I cannot sit idle while this threat looms. I'll go a step further to say none of us can. That would be an abandonment of my responsibilities. This lease sale is only on pause. Back home on a shelf sits a book entitled Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered by Bill Devall and George Sessions. Chapter one, page one, line one: "Nothing can be done, everything is possible".
In the 1970's, before my time, the State of Alaska offered oil lease sales right here in Kachemak Bay. Right in the very waters where there were booming shrimp and crab fisheries. Folks here resisted, forming the Kachemak Bay Defense Fund to oppose the oil development in the Bay. Eventually the state capitulated and the leases were bought back. Further, in recognition that the ecological integrity of the Bay was essential to support regional fisheries, the State went a step further and declared Kachemak Bay, and the Fox River Flats as Critical Habitat Areas, and thus permanently protected from future oil development. This monumental achievement came about through an organized community effort with a clearly directed focus. Everything is Possible!
Drawing on his experiences learning from Koyukon Athabascan elders, the anthropologist Richard Nelson wrote that ancient societies around the world have built monuments, testaments to their accomplishments such as the pyramids of Teotihuacán, Machu Picchu and Stonehenge. The Koyukon he suggests have left an even greater monument: a vast wilderness landscape used, lived in and occupied for thousands of years, and yet, relatively unchanged, capable of supporting the same lifeway it has for countless generations. This amazing testament of human achievement is the legacy we must individually and collectively strive for in Lower Cook Inlet.
This is our attendant responsibility.
As a resident here on the southside of the Bay, as fisherman, and subsistence harvester, I see my responsibility can be no less than to work for that. This means facing this threat with optimistic uncompromising urgency and to call on all of my fellow Gulf of Alaska fishermen and area residents to do the same. We must look to ourselves and joyfully embrace the responsibility of stewardship we collectively share to pass this wild place on to future generations, not scarred or defiled by industrial development but unchanged, enduring, extraordinary and full of potential.
The sun is up now,
the current has switched too, there are no oil platforms yet.
There is just a seal, no, wait there are four of them
just beyond the kelp bed. I'll come back tomorrow.
Now, there is work to do.
To take action, visit: https://secure.ngpvan.com/8ZT-KH92l0WypSlkg0dprw2