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When you take away our fish, you take away more than just our food

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This article originally appeared in The Circle 02.15.

Some of the ecosystem values of the Arctic are very concrete local commodities such as food, shelter, and provisions. As Piama Oleyer writes, these are also linked to cultural values much harder to quantify, but no less precious.

Piama Oleyer with her boat which carries fish from local fishermen to canneries to save time, energy and fuel going back and forth from fishing grounds. She is the Traditional Knowledge Advisor for the Aleut International Association in the TEEB study.Piama Oleyer with her boat which carries fish from local fishermen to canneries to
save time, energy and fuel going back and forth from fishing grounds. She is the
Traditional Knowledge Advisor for the Aleut International Association in the TEEB

Our ancestors have inhabited the Aleutian region for nearly ten thousand years. We raised our children to eat from our land and sea, not by necessity but by preference.  Every spring I took a big bowl out and we created salads of such variety to feast on. All summer I taught my children to know which plants, roots, seeds and berries were edible. We made teas, salads and recipes and potions from traditional knowledge. Sadly, there came a time when we went to harvest some of the products of the sea and couldn’t eat them due either to toxicity or regulations about who could take products out of our waters. Natural and manmade disasters are already happening with dire consequences. We have already lost so much that it is no longer ‘a matter of time’, it’s a matter of how low we will draw our bottom line. It’s a matter of not allowing the continuance of the degradation of our natural environment.

To what extent must we keep accepting unbalanced policies that weigh heavy on the value of extracted resources? These policies aren’t designed to benefit the people who’ve lived here for thousands and thousands of years. Policies are designed to benefit the few companies who now ‘own’ our resources. Businesses (even our own) trade traditional harvest areas for leases to industry because Grandma can’t afford the $3.25 per square foot for her basket weaving grass. In Unalaska, salmon found their home stream, the Illiuliuk River, only to meet a choking death caused by mining silt and road chemicals washing downstream over the years. When I was a child, I could cross the river on the backs of the fish without getting wet. That abundance no longer exists.   People can no longer eat food from our beaches due to risk of illness and actual death. Unalaska has been declared a ‘dead bay’ due to industrial activity.

Cultural losses can’t be quantified with a dollar value. When you take away our fish you take away more than just our food. So much in life revolves around gathering it, preparing it, sharing it. With the demise of certain activities, entire concepts are lost and the gaps are obvious when trying to teach our language. Our traditional cultural knowledge is altered. My mother spoke about the great depression when the world seemed to have lost the will to live because they lost their money. “We were poor but we didn’t know it because we had everything we needed,” she would say. When all your needs are met, people are not poor even if you don’t have money.

It is our duty to take care of our place on this planet. We Unangan are the stewards of this area. Our oceans provide an abundance of wealth. We should all be living at our peak potential rather than subsisting to exist. Much in our culture is based on sharing our wealth; this was our way of life. In the Aleutians, we live by an ocean harvest in the most bountiful waters in the world. Over the years, we have been forced to adapt to a new way of harvesting the sea. Whether we exist as commercial or subsistence users, we comply with the regulations governing every aspect of what we have always eaten. We are told who can fish, what to fish, where, when, how and how much, and who we can or can’t give or sell our catch to. Today in our region, a continuous stream of gigantic ships carry our resources away and regulations are written based on who has the most money. These policy-makers are the same ones who allowed bottom trawlers to drag their massive ground level nets right up to our front doors destroying the habitat of the ocean floor.  Subsistence users have a near zero by-catch which means they do not accidentally catch and kill anything they aren’t supposed to.

Super-cargo ships and industrial trawlers bear down on a collision course with the local fishermen in the area around Unimak Bight where these monstrous ships regularly plow through their fishing grounds. The only defense our helpless fishermen have is to put their own lives and boats at risk and stand their ground (fishing grounds) and set their gear as usual. Then they plan to document the injuries they suffer when these immense ships run right over them and their gear. This dangerous attitude is a final effort to change the ways in which the mega-fisheries make it impossible for local people to continue their traditional lifestyle.

Who is this Goliath they face, whose visibility is cut off by the sheer height of the stacked containers? These enormous ships don’t even see the fishermen. Is it because of their size or the value of their payload that they believe they have the right-of-way?  Perhaps they just don’t understand; a lot of them are foreign ships so there’s a communication gap. Fishermen can’t call them and talk to them in Chinese so of course they hail them in English, to no avail. There is often very low visibility in the area and even with Automatic Identification System, (AIS) small vessels are still difficult to see on radar (or perhaps hard to distinguish a ship from a whale).  “I wish I had a picture of that whale stuck on the bow of that Maersk ship,” says Tom Robinson, President of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska where Dutch Harbor acts as a maritime gateway to the world. The whale he is referring to was run over and killed and it was not the first. Horrific events have been happening for much too long. What will it take for changes to be made when our complaints fall on deaf ears? This is no longer ‘a matter of time’, it’s happening right now and has been happening in my back yard for years.

According to the Risk of Vessel Accidents and Spills in the Aleutian Islands, a special report by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, during the past 15 years there have been 3,400 oil spills in the past 15 years (PDF).  Most of these are small but the report estimates there are up to 5 large ‘damaging’ spills every year. I don’t know how they define “damaging” and why they don’t consider the other 3000-plus “small” spills damaging. I have personally witnessed catastrophic maritime events over the years which have wreaked disaster upon our shores.

As Indigenous people in the region, we need to call the shots on the methodology of cleaning up those spills. With the increased value of organic foods, how can we say our Alaskan waters are pristine, after chemicals are dumped in the waster to disperse crude oil, every time there is an oil spill? Tom Robinson says “There needs to be an efficient, ecologically friendly oil spill response at a mechanical level, not using dispersant. We do not condone or approve of the use of oil-dispersant chemicals in our waters.” We acknowledge that these events are going to happen multiple times and at varying magnitudes in our very near future. We want to be prepared. We need to guarantee that the ecosystem will continue to produce as it has for thousands of years. We need to ensure that our communities can sustain a local economy where children won’t have to move away to have a better life.

Time and time again, our resources have been obliterated by outside merchants, yet our people have adapted as they always have. Our culture remains; our place in the world remains. In spite of the countless regulations placed upon us, we still find ways to harvest our foods. We still manage our own territory, though our voice is not always heard.

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