Linda Behnken is a fisherman, a mother of two, and the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA). This superwoman fishes for sablefish, halibut and salmon in Alaska using just a hook and line, and I got the opportunity to interview her at a recent Small Scale Fisheries Workshop held in Durham.
This is the first of a series of interviews that I will do for this blog with small-scale fishers* from around the world. If you’ve never thought much about small-scale fishers before, you should start now. As far as oceans go, it would be hard to find any people – including marine biologists! – who spend as much time on the water as fishers do. Ditto in rivers and lakes. Anyone interested in aquatic issues can learn a whole lot from fishers. Small-scale fisheries are also critically important sources of food security, employment, cultural heritage. They link aquatic ecosystems and communities of people. Small-scale fisherfolk might be the most plugged-in actors in aquatic systems. So if you haven’t thought much about small-scale fishers before, you should – and I’m going to provide some concrete ways for you to get to know some.
*note: fishers is one of several gender-neutral terms for fishermen
Me: What is your name?
Behnken: Linda Behnken.
Me: Where are you from?
Behnken: Sitka, Alaska.
Me: What kind of fisher are you?
Behnken: I fish for halibut, black cod, and salmon – all hook and line fishing.
Me: How often do you fish?
Behnken: I used to fish for 10 months a year, but now that I’m involved in fisheries management and I have kids, I fish 4 months out of the year.
Me: How do you fish?
Behnken: I have a 40-foot boat, and we fish as a family. We are sometimes gone from our home port for 2 or 3 weeks at a time, but we unload our fish at other ports along the coast.
Me: How did you get into fishing?
Behnken: I went to Alaska because I wanted to see the wild place that I’d always read about, and I fell in love immediately with the mountains, the ocean, and the community. It took me about a month to get a chance to go out on a boat. I filled in for someone who was drunk the night before and hungover. That was my first time at sea, fishing. It took me another couple of weeks to find another job on a fishing boat, but then I was hooked… literally and figuratively.
Me: What is your day-to-day like as a fisher?
Behnken: It depends on the time of year, but we are up before first light. So, in the summertime, we are up around 2:00 am or 3:00 am, and have our gear in the water in the next hour or so after being up. If we are longline fishing (for halibut or sablefish), we have a break between setting and hauling gear towards the beginning of the trip. But later in the trip, we set and haul gear pretty continuously. For halibut, we set gear in the water for 4-6 hours, then go back and haul it, but when we are fishing for sablefish or black cod, we set gear for one night and haul it the next morning. So it soaks for 12 hours before we go haul it. When we are trolling (dragging a hook and line through the water), you’re actually pulling the gear behind you, so we will be fishing for 20-hour days usually, and when a fish hits, you can tell. So you’re running in the gear with hydraulics, but landing each fish by hand.
Me: Why should we pay more attention to small-scale fisheries?
Behnken: Small-scale fishermen are tremendously strong voices for sustainable fisheries. They’re people who care about having healthy oceans and productive fisheries to pass on to the next generation. In rural areas, they are often the only source of economic employment for people. There are communities all over the world. The ones I know best are in Alaska, but with the road system, there’s not much else that people can do to support themselves besides fisheries. Nearly all Alaska’s coastal communities are off the road systems—isolated by hundreds of miles of wilderness and in some cases on islands as well. And when people from rural communities lose access, they lose a way of life, they lose self-esteem. We see all sorts of other social issues that flow out of that. So, there’s a social justice piece, there’s a social equity, and there’s a really strong conservation piece to supporting small-scale fisheries.
Me: What are some of the biggest problems you face as a small-scale fisher?
Behnken: So the biggest problem we face as small-scale fishermen is having the capacity to maintain our access to the resource and to maintain the health of the resource. So we’re always up against industrial fishermen, corporations that have a really different perspective that they bring to the resource of just trying to maximize profit. Mobility allows them to move on to another fishery or a completely different way of earning money if that fishery is exhausted. So they’re a threat environmentally. Politically, they have a lot more clout, a lot more access to power. Other threats to the resource, of course, are from other industries: from oil and gas development, from mining, and from timber harvest that could compromise the health of the resources we depend on.
Me: If you could have any job, what would it be?
Me: What is your least favorite part of fishing?
Behnken: It’s not the actual fishing part, but it does get wearying: the sense that it’s a constant battle to maintain space in these fisheries for small-scale fishermen. So sometimes I think: boy, if I had a different way of life I wouldn’t feel like I was always under attack, always trying to fight for what I care about, for the people that I care about. But the actual fishing itself? Even when I’m cold and wet, I still love it.
Me: Last question. What is your favorite part of fishing?
Behnken: I love working closely with other people, where you’re physically working hard. The cameraderie that develops. I love fishing as a family, having our kids be part of what we do, and see all that it takes to do what we have to do. I love being on the ocean, having whales around us, dolphins. I mean, every day is different, and there’s always challenges that come up, there’s always problems to solve, so it’s never dull. Sometimes you wish it were more dull because sometimes it’s scary, but the times when it feels dangerous or scary or challenging, I think it’s also, it encourages a kind of humility that I think we should all have towards the natural world, so all of that is what I love about fishing.
More information can be found about Behnken’s work to maintain healthy Alaskan fisheries for small-scale fishers at alfafish.org.