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Rough Waters explores fishing futures, families, frustrations

Courtesy Nancy Mendenhall

A new book on Northwest fisheries started as a family history, and morphed into a tome on fisheries issues throughout the world.

What started as an exploration of one family’s history of fishing morphed into a study of small boat fishermen in Alaska and beyond. Nancy Danielson Mendenhall’s “Rough Waters: Our North Pacific Small Fishermen’s Battle” is a 430-page exploration of what family fishermen have in common, and what is different, particularly on the west coast.

Mendenhall, a Nome resident, has fished for subsistence for more than 30 years. Before that, she fished commercially in Southeast Alaska, mostly trolling for salmon near Sitka.

“My family background goes back into history so far we don’t know. My grandfather on my father’s side was fishing off the Lefoten Islands in Norway, and who knows how long they were doing that. All of the people on my father’s side were commercial fishermen,” she said. “I have two sons now that are still commercial fishing, and one that’s very into subsistence fishing.”

In addition to being a fisherman, Mendenhall is a bit of a historian. She used letters to write a book about farming in the Lower 48. But she's noticed that letters have become less common in recent years.

"And I thought, how will the grandchildren, the great grandchildren, know what their fathers and mothers did, unless somebody writes it down for them, 'cause it's going to be lost."

Credit Photo Courtesy Nancy Danielson Mendenhall

So she set out to catalogue her own family’s story in a book, and then, realized that there was more of a story to tell than just her own. Through her conversations with more than a dozen fishermen and others involved in the fishery, Mendenhall said she heard about the same problems plaguing fishermen in many places: climate change and management that sometimes results in consolidation in favor of large-scale industrial operations.

“The fishing quotas that were created by IFQ became very valuable, and so there was a big market in them, and it was an open market, and people with a lot of money were able to buy up those quotas, and the fishing quotas began to leave the small communities," she said. "Especially the youth in those small communities were hurt. Now, 15 years later, 20 years later, people are worried about what’s happening to the younger fishermen. Why are fewer younger fishermen going into fishing? Well, because they don’t have the money to buy those quotas.”

Those problems have a larger impact on small boat fishermen, she said.

“When problems come along, it’s always going to affect the small fishermen the most,” she said. “They always have the most at risk. They have less in the bank. And it especially affects the small communities they support.”

The book also looks at what has happened on America’s East Coast, and in Iceland – places where once thriving fishing communities have largely transitioned to other economies.

“Why are fewer younger fishermen going into fishing? Well, because they don’t have the money to buy the quota,” she said.

Danielson Mendenhall said she also learned about big differences between salmon fisheries and other fisheries in Alaska. Although Alaska’s salmon fisheries – like Bristol Bay – have often implemented permit systems that preserve smaller opportunities, other efforts to limit fishing or participation have made it more difficult for smaller boat fishermen to participate, such as the Bering Sea groundfish and crab fisheries, she said.

The book doesn’t just identify problems. Mendenhall said she also looked at various ways to preserve fishing communities, and said she supports the idea of community supported fisheries programs that help sell local fish - and ideas like community permit banks.

“I think that’s an excellent idea," she said. "If they have communities that own permits, own quota, then the boats don’t leave, the permits don’t leave, the quota doesn’t leave and the communities can try to rebuild, the ones that have lost the most. It’s too bad that it wasn’t done that way in the first place.”

She also explores Alaska’s community development quota program. That program gave non-profits like Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation fishing quota in federal fisheries in an effort to help protect coastal communities along the Bering Sea.

“The only place where a small fishermen on this coast has a chance, a younger fisherman without a lot of money, without a lot of backing – would be through a CDQ. I know it’s a controversial program and I don’t agree with everything they do, but it’s the only place on this coast that I do see that younger fishermen have a chance.”

Mendenhall said that although it’s not a clean solution, and the CDQ reliance on funding from industrialized fishing efforts add a level of irony to the situation, it has helped communities like her own develop local, small-boat fisheries.

In Norton Sound, that includes a small Norton Sound red king crab fleet that’s dependent on converted herring skiffs and even some Bristol Bay gillnetters, and a skiff-based halibut fishery, and some years, a tom cod bait fishery, she said.

“I can see that here, it made the growth of a small fleet possible,” she said. “There wasn’t any possibility of a fleet here before CDQ. So it’s an odd mix.”

Of all the ways to mitigate challenges in the fisheries, Mendenhall said that making sure people know about fishing outside of fishing communities is one of the most important. 

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