In the wake of the BP disaster, we’ve heard powerful stories from fishermen whose livelihoods may have been destroyed for decades or longer. However long it takes for the Gulf’s fish, oyster and shrimp harvests to recover, those who’ve made their livelihoods harvesting them will need to create a powerful common voice if they’re not going to continue to be made expendable. A powerful model comes from Seattle and Alaska salmon fisherman Pete Knutson, who has spent thirty-five years engaging his community to take environmental responsibility, creating unexpected alliances to broaden the impact of their voice, and in the process defeating massive corporate interests.
“You’d have a hard time spawning, too, if you had a bulldozer in your bedroom,” Pete reminds us, explaining the destruction of once-rich salmon spawning grounds by commercial development and timber industry clearcutting. Pete could have simply accepted this degradation as inevitable, focusing on getting a maximum share of dwindling fish populations. Instead, he’s gradually built an alliance between fishermen, environmentalists, and Native American tribes, persuading them to work collectively to demand that habitat be preserved and restored and to use the example of the salmon runs to highlight larger issues like global climate change.
The cooperation Pete created didn’t come easily: Washington’s fishermen were historically individualistic and politically mistrustful, more inclined, in Pete’s judgment, “to grumble or blame the Indians than to act.” But together, with their new allies, they gradually began to push for cleaner spawning streams, rigorous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and an increased flow of water over major regional dams to help boost salmon runs. They framed their arguments as a question of jobs, ones that could be sustained for the indefinite future. But large industrial interests, such as the aluminum companies, feared that these measures would raise their electricity costs or restrict their opportunities for development. So they bankrolled a statewide initiative to regulate fishing nets in a way that would eliminate small family fishing operations.