As beloved as salmon are across Alaska, they’re also the focus of tense disagreements. The Alaska Humanities Forum is convening a group of people to find ways to make those conversations more constructive.
The Salmon Fellows program, now in its second year, brings together people with different backgrounds and interests in salmon to brainstorm ways to defuse some of the controversies between user groups, communities and resource developers in Alaska and find ways to sustain the state’s wild salmon runs. The fellows keep their day jobs and meet occasionally, working on individual projects throughout the 18-month program. The first year featured a broad geographic spread of people, from Anchorage to Tanana and from Igugig to Petersburg, including one from the Kenai Peninsula.
This time around, there are four with connections to the Kenai Peninsula out of 16. Fellows Donna Aderhold and Catie Bursch both live in Homer, Marcus Mueller lives in Soldotna and Taylor Evenson lives in Anchorage but commercially fishes in Upper Cook Inlet every summer.
The Alaska Humanities Forum, an Anchorage based statewide nonprofit founded in 1972, considers geographic diversity but had a number of qualified applicants from the peninsula this year, said program coordinator Kitty Farnham.
“It wasn’t particularly conscious, and it wasn’t like a heavy number (of applicants from the peninsula),” she said. “We listen not only to geography but also sector.”
The Kenai Peninsula fellows represent a cross-section of the fishing community on the peninsula. Aderhold, the program coordinator for Gulf Watch Alaska, does not fish but researches wildlife. Bursch fishes a commercial set gillnet site in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay each summer and worked as an environmental educator with the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Homer. Mueller is the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s land management officer and a personal-use and sportfisherman. Evenson is a third-generation commercial drift gillnet fisherman in Upper Cook Inlet and founded a company that turns salmon carcasses into fertilizer.
Aderhold said she first heard of the Salmon Fellows program at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s Industry Outlook Forum in January, when two members of the first year’s group spoke about the program.
“I thought, ‘That’s really interesting,’ and then I went to the back of the room and there some brochures,” she said. “I looked at the brochure and thought, ‘I need to do this.’”
With a background in research, Aderhold said she wants to see scientists communicate with the public as well as they communicate with other scientists. Expanding that communication and building out to include traditional knowledge and perspectives is important, she said.
One part of the program includes each fellow working on a project, including a short demonstration project this summer. Aderhold said her initial project includes talking to landowners who have salmon streams running through their property to learn what they know about it, how they feel about it and gather their perspectives. Learning to understand other viewpoints is key to having conversations that provide better solutions, she said.
“I don’t think that we can truly conserve salmon habitat if we’re just locking horns over the issue,” she said. “We both have to understand each other’s perspectives.”
Bursch said she also is interested in the work of the fellows program to gather perspectives.
“Our group is incredibly respectful and I felt like … when I went into it and looked at everyone’s bios, oh man, if we get down in the weeds and arguing about who gets what, I don’t have time for that,” she said. “I think anyone who knows a lot about salmon realizes we have to get past that. … At the same time, our group is diverse in all the ways you can love salmon, but there’s no one that doesn’t love salmon in the group.”
Bursch, who is also an artist and said she sees salmon from several perspectives, said her experience in salmon also comes from her work on the setnet site in Bristol Bay. One of the things she noticed in the meeting in Petersburg was the variety of regional perspectives on salmon. For example, as Bristol Bay and Southcentral Alaska residents are debating the future of the Pebble Mine, a proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine near Lake Clark, Southeast Alaska residents are already dealing with the impacts of upstream mines in Canada.
Gathering perspectives from other areas of the state, both about salmon and how people interact with their environments, is something Mueller said he looks forward to in the program. He connected it to a principle coined by conservationist and author Aldo Leopold in his collection “A Sand County Almanac,” called the “land ethic.”
“(It’s) just a way of thinking about how we as people are really integrated into our landscapes and what we do and what we live with are tied together,” he said. “And to take care in the choices that we make on landscapes.”
At the gathering in Petersburg, one the questions the fellows considered was a basic principle of why salmon are important, be it cultural, economic, emotional or ecological, Mueller said. Considering the models in other stream systems and areas is interesting, too, he said. The Yukon River, for example, requires a lot of collaboration to make sure enough salmon make it upstream to provide for the various user groups scattered along its 2,000-mile length. It’s also an international river, with salmon escapement to Canada covered by treaty.
The fellows are also conscious of where Alaska is in history as one of the last bastions of healthy wild salmon runs, while other areas like the Pacific Northwest, the eastern seaboard and Europe have struggled with or lost their runs due to overfishing and habitat degradation. Alaskans have to consider how management and use affect can prevent salmon runs from suffering the same fate they’ve met elsewhere, Mueller said.
“It seems like often times we are posed with questions of choice and maybe those questions of choice maybe don’t have to be one or the other,” he said. “I think that’s something that people can really chew on, is the idea that there doesn’t have to be a choice between industry or salmon. That if that’s a choice, that’s a bad choice, if we have to choose between salmon and industry. … It’s my belief there’s another economy to be had, a realignment between economic values, social values and environmental values, and that those things go together. And that there’s not the same kind of tension, dominance and victimhood.”
Evenson said that was something he considered, too. The experiment between human development and salmon runs has already happened and the result is clear. The division between sides, such as the historical user group conflicts in Cook Inlet, have been loaded with negativity that he would like to see reduced. Learning to empathize with one another’s uses, viewpoints and culture will be an important step and is part of why he applied for the fellowship program, he said.
For his project, he’s interested in taking a survey of people who live along salmon streams in the Matanuska Valley to see how the activities upstream affect the downstream habitat and fish, such as using fertilizer or chemicals on land or crossing streams with ATVs.
“(Human activity along salmon streams) really affects the habitat and I want people to realize I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it too,” he said. “I’m very skeptical you can have strong salmon runs and unfettered recreation, unfettered development. … I think at some point, sadly, you’re going to have to make some kind of choice. The Humanities Forum, trying to focus on human-based solution to this problem, I think is the right way to go about it.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.