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New book 'Rough Waters' explores Alaska fishing families, futures

June 24th, 2016 | Molly Dischner Print this article   Email this article  

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 recent years, she's noticed that letter-writing is less common, and began to worry about what that meant for preserving family histories in the future. She herself used letters to write a book about family farming in the Lower 48. 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. 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.

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 permit banks and other similar efforts that have taken place in Iceland and elsewhere.

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."

Molly Dischner can be reached at


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