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Lacey Berns - Groundswell Fisheries Movement

Part 1 - Fishing-Dependent Communities

Part 1 outlines her review of the meaning of Community and its elements, as well as some key questions, and touches on how this fits into federal fishing act requirements. Part 2 will cover her perspectives on problems with Alaska's state role and how its redefining community to include super-processor interests is a mistaken approach.


Excerpts from a Masters Thesis on "Alaska's Changing Coastal Communities"

By Lacey Berns

"Fisheries are a human phenomenon. fisheries are places where human activities are linked with marine ecosystems and renewable resources. Human fishing activity is the defining attribute of a fishery. [and] if fisheries management is to be more successful in the future it must integrate social and cultural concerns with the management of natural resources and ultimately the level of its success will rest upon how well it promotes the well being of people living in fishing communities." –– The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Understanding the Cultures of Fishing Communities: A Key to Fisheries Management and Food Security, 2001.

An MIT Sea Grant study on New England fisheries defines a fishing-dependent community as "the social, economic, and cultural relationships between fishermen and their communities. Benefits that flow from these relationships are multiplied through a series of networked community exchanges and transformations based on different forms of capital-human, social, cultural. It defines them as Natural Resource Regions."

Furthermore, the social and cultural fabric of individual communities is interwoven through a series of regional exchanges – economic, ritual, and otherwise. The exchanges define the degree of community dependence on the marine environment, and can be linked to varying regional and extra-regional influences of the marketplace, changing environments, governance, and extraction technologies.

Five variables help identify community dependence on a fishery:

1. Relative isolation of fishery-dependent people into alternative economic sectors;

2. Vessel types/gear strategies within the port's fisheries;

3. The degree of regional specialization;

4. The percentage of population involved in fishery or fishery-related industries;

5. Competition and conflict within the port among different components of the fishery.

Fishing occupations are interwoven though whole fabric of the community's culture. Families and intergenerational transfer of fishing "legacy" and access has been important in the past, but is diminishing because of difficult political and economic conditions.

Attributes and Characteristics of the members of a fishing community (Selznik, Esbjornson):

  • Social interaction creates relationships, camaraderie
  • Shared meaning created through occupational identity, involvement with other fishermen
  • A shared system of beliefs, attitudes, activities, and commitments
  • Connected by bonds that establish a common purpose
  • A sense of belonging, place, and "rootedness" at home on the ocean
  • Mutual help and cooperation, sharing, support, and trust
  • Community emerges through social interaction, identity, and a common life
  • Community is formed through a shared mutuality, collective sense of history
  • The bonds of community are strongest when they are fashioned from strands of shared history and culture


    Cultural capital is the "language, customs, thought of as the filter through which people live their lives, the daily or season rituals they observe and the way they regard the world around them."

    Fishing communities are losing their generational perpetuation of family-owned fishing operations, also known as "legacy" due to external threats, such as low prices, "rationalization" and processor quota shares.

    Cultural capital is a powerful concept in that it determines the future of any community based on the socialization process, which transmits values, and via many forms of communication.

    "Independent entrepreneurs are found more often in rural communities. Typically values emphasize hard work, independence, and investment in their resource-based businesses. This influences the kind of legacy each family passes on to their children. A place to live, access to making a living through natural resource availability, and personal fulfillment from the "family business and involvement in the local community makes the connection between legacy and place enormously strong. When that legacy is blocked, as it was for farm families in the 80s the loss can be devastating. Legacy for this social class is place-specific. parents develop a set of skills crucial to running business and accepted in community. specific to a town's culture. knowledge and connections important to economic survival in a given community are transferred from parent to child." –– Flora, Flora, and Fey, 2003.
    Cultural capital is defined "specific behaviors, values, and skills transmitted among and between members of a population, including across generations, applied to their adaptation to specific environments including the transformation and utilization of natural, human, and social resources in those environments.if the disruption is too great (to a social organization or community). then systemic collapse may take place."

    "Furthermore, a fundamental premise of the regional model (for a fishing community) is that the use of natural resources for one's primary livelihood engenders relationships of dependence between fishermen and their support networks. Significant changes in access to fisheries resources, thus have a multiplier effect across these personal networks that affects all levels of the social structure, including communities, businesses, organizations, families and individuals."– MIT Sea Grant.
    There is the support needed to understand the complexities of fishing communities, harvesters, and give full importance to the economic and social foundations.


  • HUMAN CAPITAL: involves the skills and abilities of individuals within a community and includes crewmembers, fishermen, skippers, operators, vessel owners, intimate knowledge of fishing areas, and fish-catching abilities.

  • CULTURAL CAPITAL: includes values, the way the citizen lives their lives, the festivities, traditions which form the substance and customs, and activities of the community; the norms of behavior "on the grounds."

  • SOCIAL CAPITAL: networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual trust, which contribute to a sense of common identity and shared future. Bridging and bonding capital are important forms of social capital for community prosperity: fisheries organizations, networks of fishermen found in coastal communities, interactions and behavior on the fishing grounds, camaraderie, shared history and way of life.

  • FINANCIAL CAPITAL: funds that are used for investment, which creates more value: investment in vessels, gear, permits. This type of capital can convert into built capital: schools, libraries, and infrastructure which support the human capital that may work with renewable resources, and ultimately is the foundation of the fishing community economy. Not only does fishing income turnover in the community, but fisheries, sales, and property taxes underpin the economic well-being of coastal towns.

  • NATURAL CAPITAL: is the natural world, the air, ecosystem, biodiversity, including animals, marine life, and healthy fisheries resources: the billions of pounds of Alaskan fish caught and processed around the Gulf of Alaska in coastal communities, reinforcing and providing the economic and social basis of community viability.


    It is crucial in a fisheries management change to study more than economics or efficiencies. Types of capital generated within all communities create a complex and potent interaction between those types of capital: human, cultural, social, financial/built, natural, and political. A state of equilibrium or "well-being" can describe the interaction of these forms of capital when the community understands, supports, invests in its human, and cultural assets or resources and utilizes its assets or existing capital, protects and sustains its resources, both natural and human, and plans strategically and politically to perpetuate their existence.

    Why is it important to retain cultural capital and include it in the calculations of resource access?

    "Although a culture is generally adaptive, extreme or rapid changes to a culture can be detrimental to members of the culture, if "cultural change occurs too rapidly it can be a source of harmful stress to the members.because a culture is the result of a considerable accumulation of human experience, a product of it's members long-term adaptations to life in the region they occupy as well as their adaptations to more immediate and contemporary circumstances." – UN-FAO, 2001.

    The MIT study (Hall-Arbor, PhD, Madeleine, Dyer, PhD, Chris, McNally, James, Gagne, Rene, 'New England's Fishing Communities') describes declines as including:

  • Abandonment of a natural region,
  • Decay of a socio-cultural system or civilization and,
  • Extinction of a particular "form of association" – synonymous with the totality of interdependent relationships (or total capital) that defines a community.

  • As substantiated by these research criteria, and a Department of Labor study discussed below, fishing communities in coastal Alaska are "dying" – especially under the impacts of "rationalization" and low fish prices. This is evidenced by the dramatic attrition rate of harvesters from local fisheries and lifetimes of personal and financial investment that resulted from bad policies that failed to consider this comprehensive definition of community.

    Communities that rely on fisheries-related assets are slowly losing those resources: creating instability in every fleet and fishing region across the state. And no other region has as much to lose, as the Kodiak Island Borough. It has the most diversified port in Alaska and is dependent on 27 different fisheries.


    An Alaska Department of Labor study (Neal Gilbertsen, 2004) described in Alaska Economic Trends: Residents and Alaska Fisheries, states that between the mid-80s and 2005, several events led to the economic and social decline in fishing communities:

  • The dramatic decline of salmon and herring prices
  • The implementation of IFQs, "cutting out the economic heart of the small boat fishery."
  • The Americanization of the Bering Sea-Aleutian Island groundfish industry, which added a component to fisheries located in Alaska that was almost entirely non-Alaskan.

  • That's alarming evidence of failed fisheries policies, making it more difficult to understand the urgent push for further "rationalization" by corporate interests, now being supported by the State of Alaska. NPFMC actions are not taking into account the testimonies of those affected, just as the Council did during the IFQ hearings in the early 1990s.

    Why, then, would the State of Alaska support policies that, as validated by their own studies, undermine fishing communities? Supporting processor quota shares and restricted markets do not satisfy the goal of "protecting Alaskan interests" (State of Alaska, MSA Briefing Paper, 2005).

    Alaska's coastal fishing communities are spatially separate and fragile economies when structural social changes occur that reduce the productivity and eliminate the accrued human, built, and social capital at "the bottom." Or in other words, when they suffer changes that undermine the foundation of a community structure, and the accrual of assets and investments by fishermen over time.

    Groundswell note: A February 2006 GAO study on stakeholder participation verified how deficient the decision-making process on federal fishery policy is, by saying the regional councils lacked core principles, a strategic approach, and needed to implement a formal participation framework.


    When the State created the fisheries policy of limited entry in the 1970s, and the act was voted into law, the program worked successfully to limit participation in the salmon industry, yet succeeded in protecting coastal communities and their assets -- all forms of capital: human, social, built, financial, and cultural.

    The criteria of permit-ownership were based on rules that protected the state's assets, including natural capital, human capital/resident fishermen; investment in fishing vessels and gear; and enhancing coastal fisheries. Resource ownership rights decimate communities by conferring resources as capital to be owned by "investors" who are often not participants, rather than protecting capital that can be caught - rights that naturally accrue if one is skilled enough to fish each year, as are harvesters, crewmembers, and operators of fishing vessels.

    Limited entry preserved the forms of capital that make up fishing communities: resident fishermen, crewmembers, and cultural aspects of the way of life. Limited entry guarantees competition - the strong, skillful fishermen survive and can buy and sell permits.

    The State of Alaska's new philosophy of managing natural resources: People's livelihoods and ways of life are expendable.

    More in Part 2, later.


    Groundswell note: Berns outlines key questions and offers perspectives that should be considered in the pursuit of core principles and used in a strategic approach, as advised by the GAO.
    Are coastal communities prepared to lose their fishing cultures?

    Because commercial fishing is not solely about economics or "efficiency" and involves a complex set of dynamics between fleets, communities and harvesters, it is crucial to include an analysis of the many meanings of community, the culture of fishing, the social interactions and longtime relationships between fishermen, the flow of different forms of capital within communities, and the power of fisheries and connections that exist in Alaskan coastal communities. In other words, the social structure in fishing communities provides a rich, dense social network - of primary importance - consisting of ties between harvesters, fleets, and their communities.

    Where is the rigorous scientific investigation of the different meanings of community, especially rural, resource-based, occupational communities, and through which occupational identities and interests are formed, and that share the same geographical place - all of which combine to make fishing communities particularly dynamic and therefore, sensitive to programs which undermine the social structure of the community?

    The understanding and impacts of "rationalization" schemes should be derived from the discussion of community social structure, the interaction between forms of capital that exist within a community as well as the exploration of how communities are defined. These concepts lay the historical foundation of the importance of fishing livelihoods to Alaskan culture, economy, to coastal communities, to a way of life, and sense of place.


    Groundswell note: Rationalization is a complex concept, but historically has been known as a codeword meaning the replacement of once-sustainable local agricultural communities of small businesses and diverse products, with an often mono-product model of indentured export agriculture, turning those former businessmen into mere wage earners, and funneling the profits to absent shareholders. Here's Berns on how rationalization is being used in Alaska's fishing-dependent communities.
    When an entity seeks more political and economic control over a resource, then "rationalization" discussions begin in the policy arena, tossing out phrases such as "over-capitalization" or "derby fisheries" to lay the groundwork for the division of property rights. Rationalization is being used only an academic/policy term that results in the reduction of harvesting capacity.

    Processors and invested vessel owners already hold an excessive amount of economic and political power over Alaska's fishing fleets, as demonstrated by the American Fisheries Act, and the Bering Sea crab rationalization program which created the ability to acquire, own, and transfer benefits and resources to out of state corporations. There is unbridled, blatant access to political power in high stakes settings like the NPFMC by interests that don't protect Alaskans and their fishing livelihoods. Furthermore, drastic actions such as quota shares and market restrictions disproportionately impact and exclude resident harvesters.

    Rationalization is touted as the "solution" to a mythical problem. Fishermen simply do not deliver catches from Homer and travel to Sand Point, or drive from Kodiak to Seward. Fleets around Kodiak deliver their catches to Kodiak processors. There is no need to lock up markets.


    Policy makers such as the NPFMC, or those in leadership position are obligated to acknowledge the importance of social and cultural characteristics of fishing communities in designing and implementing Fishery Management Plans (FMP) because these very elements sustain the way of life, social, cultural, and economic viability of fishing communities.

    The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires that any management changes take into account the likely effects of the measures on fishermen and fishing communities, with the following needed to be addressed: the aesthetic, historic, cultural, economic, social, or health effects which may be direct, indirect, or cumulative.

    NOAA Fisheries guidelines for social impact assessments specify that the following elements are utilized in the development of FMPs and FMP amendments:

  • Size, demographic characteristics of the fishery-related work force residing in the area with these determine demographics, income, employment effects in relation to the work force as a whole, by community and region.
  • The cultural issues of attitudes, beliefs, and values of fishermen, fishery-related workers, other stakeholders, and their communities.
  • The effects of proposed actions on social structure and organization; that is, on the ability to provide necessary social support and services to families and communities.
  • The non-economic social aspects of the proposed action or policy; these include life-style issues, health and safety issues, and the non-consumptive and recreational use of living marine resources and their habitats.

  • The historical dependence on and participation in the fishery by fishermen and communities, reflected in the structure of fishing practices, income distribution, and rights. (Community and Social Data Update: 2003 SAFE Report)."


    Fisheries policies should reward those who participate in the fisheries. Fishermen, crew, skippers, operators, cannery workers and vessel owners are the fundamental human, social, and cultural capital around which all fisheries revolve. Social capital is the result of human interaction and the basis for community life. It is derived from groups, is interactive, and involves reciprocity, and mutual trust. A community that has a common vision of the future also can generate social capital.

    Having a market is important, but preserving competition between processors is crucial to fishermen in coastal communities. The State of Alaska is pursuing the wrong policy direction to be aligned with processing corporations, corporate vessel owners, who are represented by lobbyists, potentially reducing with their own best assets: people's livelihoods and ways of life. (More in Part 2).

    Policies that don't protect fishing livelihoods, and the essential facets of community, the forms of capital: natural, cultural, social, human, built, economic, and community, are dangerous and harmful to coastal economies. It's time for all residents to be informed about what exactly constitutes a "fishing community." I trust that this paper contributed to the greater efforts in our awakening communities and will help you ensure that the federal and state mechanisms are working on our communities' behalf.
    Thank you.

    Lacey Berns
    Kodiak fisher for 29 years
    Humboldt State University
    Masters Program in Environment and Community
    Government and Politics Department

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