As a commercial salmon fisherman, I tend to view my paycheck as inextricably tied to progress on climate-related policy in Congress. Salmon fisherfolks and their kin are vulnerable citizens given the amount of capital they have invested into a business that requires climate stability to work. We are not too terribly different from farmers in that regard. Squinting into the future with science in mind, it is hard to see many more generations hauling in nets full of wild Alaska salmon or harvesting barley if we don’t get to rapidly decarbonizing our world.
This summer, Sen. Lisa Murkowski will take part in the negotiations on a large federal infrastructure plan. For the sake of Alaskan fishing families, her position should recognize that a window with the Biden American Jobs Plan has opened to achieve a huge benefit for Alaska in terms of jobs, climate change mitigation and infrastructure modernization. The opportunity is now for big advancements in the nationwide transformation toward electrification of transportation, renewable power and modernization of drinking water infrastructure, now is not the time for incremental policies and research projects. Our senator will likely never again see as large an opportunity to advance a pro-jobs infrastructure agenda that also addresses the climate emergency head on.
From a fisherman’s perspective I don’t look forward to, say, government-mandated fuel economy standards for my fishing operation. At the same turn, I don’t look forward to climate-induced regime change that wipes out the salmon fishery my family relies upon. If an infrastructure plan is passed that puts us strides ahead on electric engine development jump-starting the electrification of marine engines, I will gladly replace my beloved old Cat engine with an electric one.
There are only hard choices ahead, though some choices start to make a lot of sense when technology and the economy motivates them.
Take the Bristol Bay salmon fishery — almost without exception the fleet is required by the market to hold their salmon in refrigerated seawater and deliver them at or below 38 degrees Fahrenheit. This requirement happened very quickly and caused a lot of people to either invest in new larger vessels to accommodate the necessary chilling equipment, or retrofit their old boats. The amount of money that has recently been and is currently being invested in this fishery to modernize is enormous. Fishermen will adapt to accommodate technological advancements, government mandates and market requirements. The Bristol Bay fleet has gone from sailboats to behemoth jet sleds over the years. If the salmon runs survive it will take stubborn, willful and clear-eyed policy to decarbonize the American economy — and if the runs survive, the market and the individual operations will adapt. The nut of it is, the runs must survive.
In all of this, the science is clear: As we prepare our boats to go fishing and as our leaders haggle over the size and structure of an infrastructure plan, more carbon than the planet can handle is being pumped up onto the atmosphere, putting us on a dire and near-term trajectory toward billions of dollars in economic loss and infrastructure damage.
The offers put forward by negotiating parties in the U.S. Senate fall shamefully short if they don’t significantly invest in infrastructure designed to decrease carbon emissions. These smaller offers push weakly on the increasing impacts of a climate disrupted economy. We need more from Congress if the family fishing operations are to survive. The American Jobs Plan is a good start.
Jonathan Flora is a lifelong Alaskan and will be returning to Bristol Bay for his 27th commercial fishing season.