Background image of A fishing boat in Sitka, Alaska.

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An Alaska fishing community takes care of its own

Fishing organizations don’t get much more innovative than the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, led by Linda Behnken.

When it comes to grassroots fishing organizations, they don’t get much more innovative than the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, based in Sitka and led by Linda Behnken. Behnken and ALFA are working on many fronts, supporting fish stock conservation, raising capital to buy fish quota to keep members in the game and selling fish through their own label, Alaska’s Own.

Woman on fishing boat with gaffed salmon.
Linda Behnken

Behnken, 50, draws on a rich tapestry of experiences in stewarding the group. Fleeing her native Connecticut for adventure in 1982, she talked her way onto a black cod longliner as a deckhand in Sitka. After buying her own boat and chasing halibut and blackcod for several years, she headed back East for a master’s degree in environment science at Yale, then returned and took up a position on the powerful North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 1992, just before the council begin assigning new tradeable catch allotments for halibut and black cod under what’s known as the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system.

Behnken’s talent has been in navigating the worlds of marine science, government policy, fishing communities and longlining all at once. We asked her where the innovative ALFA is headed and how it will leverage the newly launched national Community Fisheries Network, supported by Ecotrust.

Q.Your group now has its own label — how are you navigating selling and marketing the fish?

A.The Fisherman’s Conservation Network [boats that are engaged in marine research and resource stewardship] are providing fish and we’re selling those through subscriptions in Juneau and Sitka under the Alaska’s Own label. Premium seafood from FCN boats is processed in Sitka’s hydropowered seafood plants and then provided to community residents through a monthly subscription program.

We’re trying to support the whole industry supply chain. One of the processors we work with is a cooperative, owned by fishermen — most of us are part owners. Sitka’s processing plants are an important component of our community, providing jobs and engaging in community affairs. They are an ally in promoting sustainable seafood and the community-based fishing fleet.

We are less competitive on price than we would be if we sold direct from fishermen to the consumer, but this way we are supporting the fishermen, the local processors, and the community.

Q.Is this community-supported fish organization — CSF — taking off?

A.We are growing the CSF slowly and carefully. Packaging fish for the CSF is extra work for the processors, so we needed to convince them that the CSF created an important connection between fishermen and consumers that benefited the entire fishing industry. But we’ve tripled our volume between year one and two and intend to double volume again this year.

We provide seafood subscriptions in Sitka and Juneau. Juneau product is flown from Sitka, since Sitka is on an island. There’s a lot more room for growth in Juneau, the capitol, with a larger population and a lot less fishermen. Both in Sitka and Juneau, people have loved the quality of the fish we provide and the fact that it is locally caught. They also enjoy the info we provide about fisheries management, the seafood they are receiving that month, and the recipes we provide.

CSFs are like community-supported agriculture — you don’t dominate the market but they connect consumers to the people who provide their food and create a viable market niche.

Q.You’ve had some great policy wins with your small organization. What’s your secret?

A.We were successful in closing southeast Alaska waters to trawling, and the way we were able to do that was a total grassroots effort. The trawl effort in the area came almost exclusively from the Lower 48 — none of them were based in southeast Alaska.  We argued that the trawl fleet threatened the resource and the local economy, since the gear is destructive to the benthic community [seafloor habitat] and the trawl industry didn’t hire Alaskans and didn’t contribute to the local economy.  I got resolutions in support of closing this area to trawling from virtually all coastal communities in Southeast Alaska. We had support from the Congressional delegation and eventually won support from the North Pacific Council.

On securing fish quotas for small boat fishermen, our organization only agreed to support new fisheries law if that provision was included. And lawmakers thought they had to get small boat support to get the law passed.

The facts matter, credibility matters, and grassroots support is essential.

But there are always outside factors. In the 1990s, fisheries were less locked up — there was still room with facts and commitment to get things done. The American Fisheries Act allowed more corporate control of the fisheries, and now it requires a lot more political influence to get things done.

We always have to remind people we exist and that we provide the public with essential protein. It’s a fact that fishermen are off the radar for the average person. Fishermen go on out to sea and harvest and deliver fish to processor and they’re never seen. They’re not on the school board, not at the Chamber of Commerce meetings because they’re always away. So it’s easy to marginalize fishermen. Tourism businesses, for instance, are often a small contributor to the economy but a large voice because they’re around and engaged in the politics of a small town.

What’s in our favor is that fishermen in Alaska are the largest private sector employer in the State. I can’t imagine what they’re up against in a place like San Diego. California’s fishermen are just a much smaller percentage of the economy.

Q.Capital is always such a crucial component of community fisheries — have you been able to leverage new capital?

A.We’re now working on a grant to support the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust so we can secure equity capital to assist community based fishermen with the high cost of entry to Alaska’s fisheries.

There’s so much risk involved for these fishermen — not a bank in the world that will lend to them unless they have a lot of collateral. Most community based fishermen do not have sufficient collateral to secure the size loan required to purchase shares of fishing quota. To keep those quota in fishing communities, the Trust has to carry some of that risk. Otherwise the quota will leave the communities.

Q.And how are fishermen engaging with the conservation work of your network, to tackle the resource abundance question?

A.The concept is that if we get a group of fishermen together to identify conservation challenges and problems, the fishermen will figure out the tools to address and solve those challenges. Fishermen are the most innovative people I’ve ever worked with. So that’s the best path forward.

The issue of excess rockfish bycatch [species caught incidentally] has shut down fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington. So we needed to develop a tool that allowed fishermen in Alaska to control their rockfish bycatch levels.

We provided fishermen in the network with maps indicating areas of high rockfish abundance. The fishermen then provided us with data showing roughly where they fished and what they caught. We mapped this data and overlaid it with bathymetric [seafloor topography] data collected by the fishermen in the network. This allows them to avoid rocky, sensitive habitat and control rockfish bycatch rates.

After the first two years, FCN fishermen reduced their rockfish bycatch by 20% in the halibut fishery. Over three years, FCN fishermen have learned to control bycatch to established rates that protect rockfish stocks. The FCN includes 15% of the longline fishermen in the area, but if these fishermen develop the tools the whole fleet could use this technology when needed.

We’re also developing electronic monitoring for smaller boats, which will provide managers with the at-sea catch and bycatch data they need without displacing crewmembers on small boats that can’t accommodate an additional person.

And we’re working on whale deterrents. Whale predation on the black cod survey gear and on fish caught on commercial gear affects the overall quota and catch accounting. Whale predation is a conservation, economic and safety concern.

Q.What are the best methods you’re testing to keep whales away?

A.The first one is the acoustic “decoy” buoy which mimics the sound of fishing gear being put in the water. In a handful of tests we’ve seen them gather around the buoy instead of fishing boats.

We’re also testing a bead buoy above every hook that throws off their echolocation. We put a glass bead above every one — early indications are good. Whales are staying away. But it’s expensive.

There’s also a bubble device that puts a bubble screen around the fish.

Q.What’s the promise of the Community Fisheries Network?

A.On a small scale, it’s about sharing successes and information that will help other groups succeed and remain viable. I’m worried that we may be winning some battles and losing the war in terms in maintaining viable fishing communities and healthy oceans. It seems like there’s so much money and long-term thinking and efforts to get politics on the side of corporations and well-heeled interests. We need to work together to hold our own against those forces.

Unless we can aggregate the influence of community-based fishermen, we’re going to be ruled by someone else. We have to work together to influence policy in the long term.

Another piece of this is establishing a niche through community-supported fish (CSF) organizations.

If we can start to share products between organizations within the national network that will just diversify outlets for our own products, and it will increase marketability of our CSF if we can add in other groups’ fish.

And anything that builds awareness and educates people is great: that’s a really strong part of CSFs. When we need to rally that broader group of consumers around policy issues, we can call on them.