View From the Boat

My family came to Alaska 40 years ago for a "visit," but, like so many others who now call this place home, we have never left. The state's natural charms wooed us into buying a commercial fishing business in southeast Alaska in Juneau. We joined the family of notoriously independent trollers, catching king and coho salmon with hook and line. We never have had any regrets, despite some very lean years.

In Alaska, the seafood industry is the largest private-sector employer. Alaska's careful stewardship of salmon is unique: The hallmark of our fishery management is rooted in the Alaska Constitution, requiring the state's resources to be "utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle." This means Alaska manages salmon to ensure the long-term future viability of fishing.

Alaskan fishing families are deeply conservationist. Every year we have in-season time or area salmon closures to maintain healthy fish populations. We accept this -- admittedly reluctantly -- as a necessary conservation measure that protects the wild fish for future generations. Unlike many places, no Alaskan fish stock is subject to overfishing.

The growth of fish farming in the late l980s alarmed Alaskan fishermen. It was not difficult to foresee the potential risks of fish farming: diseases, pollution, escapes from pens, the overuse of antibiotics and food coloring, compromised water quality, and habitat degradation. When fish farming was proposed, we said not just "no" but "hell no." Our state legislature heard us. In 1990, Alaska took the unprecedented step of banning finfish farming in Alaskan waters.

Despite this prohibition, some of our fears were realized. Escaped Atlantic salmon from British Columbia and Washington state fish farms began to appear in our waters. Atlantic salmon are not native to the Pacific and because they have been "introduced," they are considered an invasive species that competes aggressively for habitat and food.

Both we and our fish suffered as a result of the farming. Wild salmon, caught with hook and line out in the open ocean, comes to the market unmarred and with firm flesh. But with the glut of farmed salmon that arrived on the market in the mid-1990s, the price my colleagues and I received for troll-caught king salmon plummeted from $4 per pound to 65 cents per pound. Permit and boat prices dropped precipitously, causing severe socioeconomic problems; the fabric of the small coastal communities unraveled because commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing are major contributors to the local economy and culture. During that time, for us to get a reasonable price for our fish, my husband and I would fish for two days and then drive our boat for an exhausting 24 hours straight to sell our fish locally.

Alaska has mostly recovered from these tough times, and troll-caught salmon is again a top-shelf item commanding a high price. This is only because we spent much time and money marketing our salmon. Sadly, along the way, many of our friends lost their boats and permits because they couldn't make their payments.

We still see Atlantic salmon in our waters, and we haven't forgotten the effects of the farms, even those far away from us. Now, we also face the promotion of federal legislation authorizing fish farms in federal waters throughout the U.S. As fishermen, my husband and I know this presents serious concerns for coastal communities, the environment, and the fish. Proponents of ocean fish farming regularly say that this industry will provide new jobs. In reality, fishermen lose more jobs than are provided on the farms. To aquaculture supporters, we say, "We don't want to be farmers. We want to fish."