It is a total misconception that the Alaska fishing industry was a pure sustainability success story. Regulatory agencies such as the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) strongly promote their “sustainable” policies, which has been applied to the Alaska fisheries for the past few decades. However, a careful examination of Alaska’s fishery history revealed numerous socioeconomic problems that hindered conservation effort. The policies aimed to conserve species often ignored the livelihoods of the locals and the role of humans in the ecosystem. A comprehensive study of Alaska’s approach to sustainable fisheries was published by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy of University of Alaska Fairbanks. The study, published on September 18th in Conservation Biology, advocated different cognitive models of sustainability in order to improve societal outcomes and conservation efforts.
Dr. Philip A. Loring, a human ecologist, closely examined policies that governed commercial catch of halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), five species of salmon (Oncorbynchus spp.), and many other commonly fished species in Alaska. These policies put restrictions on harvest level and certain fishing technologies. They also balance the total allowable catch with the minimum sustainable escapement, which is the number of adult spawning salmon that successfully make it to their spawning stream. Lastly, the policies are based on complete separation of scientific tasks and political decisions.
Such approach negatively impacted the rural Alaskans as commercial fisheries gained ground. Food insecurity in some area increased to 30% as the rights to fishery and other resources are reallocated. The King Salmon failure of 2009 illustrated major flaws in the policies, which overestimated minimum sustainable escapement and left many Alaskans hungry and desperate. While the government offered compensations for fishery failure, people who catch salmon for subsistence received no such aid. Surveys showed that to make up for the food shortfall, many Alaskans hunted more moose and other animal, both legally and illegally. It was clear that these institutionalized controls drove people to illegal activities that impede conservation efforts. ASMI’s declaration of management success came at the cost of rural traditions and way of life. In the long term, such approach will not be sustainable.
To develop an approach that is sustainable biologically, ecologically, and socioeconomically, different cognitive models should be considered. Different cognitive models place different emphasis on the type of outcome. Clearly, a model that only focuses on the biological outcome would be unsuccessful. There must be a more encompassing cognitive model, arguably using concepts based on mutualism and keystone species. Instead of treating humans as mere parasites, the locals should be treated as key partners to establish a mutualistic interaction. The humans should become active participants in the ecosystem, positively contributing to its well-being. This new perspective of sustainability would take the fulfillment of human needs into account. Some additional factors that this model would take into account would be human health, food security, and even quality of life. To put that into practice, there should be federal mandates for allocating food resources tailored to different local communities.
The proposed models drew inspiration from ecological models such as mutualism, but the exact ways to implement the plans remain hazy. Furthermore, realistically there would have to be many compromises. The locals would also need to lower their expectations regarding the consistency and variety of their food source.
Overall, Dr. Loring demonstrated that the success of long-term sustainability could not be gauged purely on the biological well-being of the species. Changes in policies are necessary in order to incorporate the local community into the sustainability of the ecosystem. More detailed study on the needs of the local communities is needed to create such new model. Only then could the regulatory agency proudly regard the Alaska fisheries as a sustainability success story.
LORING, P. A. (2012), Alternative Perspectives on the Sustainability of Alaska’s Commercial Fisheries. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01938.x