Cleaning up the neighborhood

Alaskans need to stop trashing each other in ongoing debate over salmon

Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2001

Now that the snow's gone, we're left to confront our trashy habits. The shoulders of our roads reveal the litter accumulated over the winter months. And we can't blame the tourists; we who live here year-round are guilty of dumping garbage and rubbish on each other. But no permanent damage is done -- the civic-minded among us will clean up the mess, and we'll all appear neater than we really are.

There are, however, more ways to pollute a community than by littering the highways with trash, and I'm talking about the way we trash each other in all the rhetoric surrounding the salmon wars. Name calling, satire, sarcasm, disdain, contempt, ridicule and scorn are far more destructive of community spirit and a lot harder to clean up than are pieces of paper on the roadside. It's time we clean up our conversation.

Rather than attacking each other, I'd suggest we consider moving the salmon war dialogue out of the realm of personal destruction and vilification and into the realm of ethics. Whether we're a guide, a Native, a commercial fisherman, or just a resident looking for a place to fish, what we do and how we do it are reducible to ethical considerations. Consider the various factions involved in the salmon wars and how we might attempt to shed some light on the issues in terms of ethics.

We might begin with the salmon themselves. To whom do they belong? Ethically considered, if they were created by God, then they belong to Him. If the salmon are products of evolution, then they belong to no one. They belong simply to themselves. In either case, what are the ethics of killing a salmon? By what right do we take their lives? Did God put them here for us to eat? Are we simply killing them because we're more developed than they? Is it OK to kill them so we can hang them on a wall?

All of us who hunt and fish, who participate in the blood sports, are currently questioning the ethics of our activity. Books like Ted Kerasote's "Blood Ties: Nature, Culture, And The Hunt" and David Petersen's "A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays On Blood Sport" are best sellers among the hook-and-bullet crowd. Both books examine the ethics of killing fish and game. Both books contemplate the question: Now that we no longer need wild game to survive, what are the ethics of continuing to kill them?

At one end of the spectrum pondering the ethics of hunting and fishing are the PETA folks: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA people believe we shouldn't be killing anything. At the other end of the dialogue is The Safari Club whose members spends tens of thousands of dollars annually in the pursuit of trophy hunting. Is there an ethical middle ground somewhere between the two views? Maybe if we had a clear grasp on the ethics of why and how we kill salmon, we'd have more insight on who can or should do the killing. A little more time spent thinking would leave less time for name calling.

Consider the ethics of Native claims. If the history books have it right, the first settlers of this country didn't invite the Russians in nor did they have a say in our purchase of Russian occupation. Now that we're here, what are the ethics of Native claims? What are the ethics of Native claims relative to the larger social order that supplies them with rifles, boats, and motors in place of spears, kayaks and paddles?

Consider the ethics of commercial fishing. Commercial fishing of Alaska's wild salmon stocks supplies a significant portion of the world's protein needs, and commercial salmon farming as it threatens to displace the need to harvest wild stocks is beset by its own problems, by no means a sure thing into the future. What are the ethics of commercial salmon fishing in terms of a growing world population and the need for food? What are the ethics of displacing a traditional industry with one more trendy? What are the ethics of commercial salmon fishing at the expense of other social considerations such as tradition, economics and recreation?

Consider the ethics of the guiding industry. Should city dwellers from the Lower 48 or elsewhere be denied Alaska salmon fishing when they help support the vast infrastructure that allows all of us to live so well? Shall we tell the man from Iowa who helped put the canned corn in our grocery store that he can't fish? What are the ethics of catch-and-release fishing in an effort for a big one? What are the ethics of catch-and-release fishing after one's limit is filled? What are the ethics of guiding itself?

Finally, consider the ethics of resident expectations and tradition. Did we move to Alaska just so folks from the Lower 48 could bid up the price of time on our rivers to where we can't afford it or crowd our rivers to where we simply opt out of fishing? What are the ethics of rural preference and subsistence fishing?

These, to my mind anyway, are the kind of questions we should be asking. I don't know the answers to these uncertainties, but these are the kind of queries that should determine where the salmon wars go. These are hard questions with no easy answers, just hard choices. The discussion is far too serious to waste time and brutalize community spirit with counterproductive, mean-spirited trashing of our neighbors.

A couple caveats are in order if we're going to move the conversation about salmon to a higher level. First, economics is not ethics. Just because something provides jobs and brings in money to our community doesn't mean it's ethical. Girlie bars provide jobs and bring in money to the local society -- that doesn't mean girlie bars are something we want more of.

Second, opinion and wishful thinking, disguised as fact, and presented in pursuit of a political agenda is nothing more than demagoguery and propaganda. According to the Kenai River Carrying Capacity Study, there were 247 guides on the Kenai in 1992. According to the records at the Kenai River Center, there were 381 guides on the Kenai in 2000. How many guides are present at any time is fact. Whether there are too many or too few guides is opinion. Opinion and fact need to be differentiated. Facts can and should be documented.

So take a fresh look at your neighbor whether he's a Kenaitze, a guide, a commercial fisherman or just some local looking for a few feet of riverbank. He isn't the enemy. We'll probably never resolve the salmon wars to everyone's satisfaction, but we shouldn't be trashing the community while we try. We' re capable of much better.

John Nelson first came to Alaska in 1961 as a college student looking for summer work. He is a wood carver; his wife, Nancy, is a certified nurse midwife in private practice. After marrying in Texas in 1963, the couple returned to Alaska in 1965 living in Anchorage for about a year. They again returned to Alaska in the early 1970s, living near Talkeetna where John worked for Nick Botner, a registered guide, for about two years. The Nelsons returned to Alaska in 1996, settling in Soldotna.

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