Alaskans love sharing a good fish story. We are famous for it, and often with each retelling, the size of the fish and direness of the circumstances increase. Fish tales are fun to share. The impacts of climate change on our region are not. The stories of what we are experiencing in Alaska need no embellishment.
A group of Alaska women involved in commercial and subsistence fisheries traveled to Washington D.C. this month to share the magnitude of change we have seen first-hand. As fishermen living in remote areas, interacting with the natural world harvesting fish, we see things that others don’t. Our relationship with our respective regions run deep, often spanning decades and generations. The change we are seeing is happening now, and we feel a responsibility to bring awareness to the degree of change we are experiencing in the Northern United States.
Alaska fishermen are innovative, resourceful, and willing to act to maintain resilient fishing communities. Storytelling and first-hand experiences help to bring awareness to our policymakers, influencing actions to address climate change. We will keep talking; we must. Our future is at risk. Fishing communities nationwide need policies that help fishing livelihoods adapt to rapid change and work together to mitigate carbon emissions contributing to climate change. We all need to act, and perhaps those of us coming from the North, where the conditions are shifting the fastest, can help others understand what’s coming.
“In Alaska, we have left behind the days of discussing climate change in hypothetical terms. As coastal communities, as small business owners and people intimately connected with the landscape, we are witnessing what can only be described as systemic and unprecedented change — in terms of its speed and scale. Dry stream beds and die-offs, erosion, and mass fish migrations; these are the stories we brought to Washington, D.C., along with requests for practical steps to help our coastal communities and fisheries stay resilient in the face of sweeping change. It is more important than ever that our federal leaders support fishery and oceanographic research, community infrastructure that bolsters resiliency efforts, and policy processes that integrate considerations for climate change impacts. We need management processes agile enough to adapt and thrive with those impacts, and rigorous enough in its standards to conserve at-risk stocks, habitats, and food webs. It is an honor to be a storyteller for our northern ecosystems, helping to connect what we’re seeing on the grounds to these long term policy needs for our regions and nation.” From Hannah Heimbuch, a second-generation fisherman from Homer and Senior Consultant with Oceans Strategies.
“Our family business is unique in that we set net using pickup trucks to work our gear from shore. Historically, sea ice protected our gravel and bluff from the Bering Sea winter storms. That’s no longer the case. We’re seeing decades of our former rate of erosion disappear in mere years. And while the current temperatures are positively impacting our salmon runs, we’re headed for a tipping point when our fish can no longer adapt to changing conditions. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring these stories back to D.C., where we can help inform policymakers as they tackle these complex issues, and look forward to working with them to make our fishing communities adaptable and climate-ready.” From Jamie O’Connor, fifth-generation set-netter from Bristol Bay and Working Waterfronts program manager and policy analyst with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
“Just this year, we had multiple, unusual wildfires in my region. Our creeks were the driest that many residents had seen. Incidentally, these last few years have also had the largest recorded sockeye runs. I’m told that the heat has actually motivated these runs. But what of the other creatures that we are seeing suffer in our regions? I haven’t seen the caribou migration for over 15 years, and while commercial fishing this summer, we caught dozens of dead shearwaters in our nets. Some of the changes could be natural, and some could be unnatural. But I believe it’s safe to say that civilization has been at fault in the past, so why not again this time? For the wellbeing of our fisheries and local biology, we must continue to adapt.” Mli Lundgren, second-generation Bristol Bay drift-netter and subsistence fisherman.
“This summer on Kodiak Island felt apocalyptic. As I flew the length of the island in August, streambeds normally bubbling with salmon were bone dry, reminding me of a desert wash. After 40 days of no rain and unprecedented heat, the northern rainforest was shriveling up, and our salmon dependent livelihoods felt extremely vulnerable. Processors were running out of reservoir water, leaving them down to only a few days of the water needed to continue to process fish. Smolt released from salmon hatcheries died, unable to live in the warm waters. Remote fish sites were out of water, hauling drinking and washing water in by hand. The fish were stressed and unable to enter the streams they were bound for due to lack of water and high water temperatures, which influences salmon movement. The salmon were exhibiting behavior no one had seen before. Sunburned pink salmon were repeatedly jumping out of the water in the mouth of the rivers. Along beaches, red salmon were traveling deep, seemingly seeking cooler temperatures as they traveled under nets while sunburnt fishermen on deck watched. Those who live in the last frontier are now living on the front lines in a changing climate. Harvesters and managers must be ready to change course under these conditions, and we all need to work together to influence policies that reduce carbon emissions and support measures that help coastal residents weather abrupt changes to our livelihoods and traditions. We need to provide adequate funding to the National Oceans and Atmospheric Association and the National Marine Fisheries Service to provide the monitoring, fish surveys, stock assessments, and research to provide the best science possible to guide management practices. We need to continue to come to policymakers in D.C. from Alaska homes and paint a picture with our words. We did just that last week, and it was clear our stories resonated in each of the offices we met with. Keep talking, Alaskans, our voices matter.” Theresa Peterson, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska, and Fisheries Policy Director with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
“The Alutiiq people have inhabited the Kodiak region for at least 7,000 years. Recent years have brought a series of events that, once considered unprecedented, have become the new normal. These events include drought, flooding, forest fires, multiple record heat waves, seabird, and marine mammal die-offs, irregular fish returns, warm climate, invasive species, and extreme fish mortality. The Alaska Federation of Natives declared climate change a state of emergency in Alaska at the 2019 Convention and reinstated its Climate Action Leadership Task Force to advocate for strong climate policies. I came to Washington D.C. to help others with less interaction with the natural world we call home in Alaska to share my experience and offer myself as a resource.” Natasha Hayden, P.E., Kodiak Island Native Alaskan, subsistence and commercial fisherman, Registered Professional Engineer, and the Director of Lands & Natural Resources for the Afognak Native Corporation.
Every fisherman has their account of how our warming environment is impacting their fishery, business, and community. Thank you to the offices that met with these fishermen to hear theirs.