Story last updated at 11:23 AM on Monday, March 6, 2006

Fishermen face global climate change, but what they can do about it unclear

homer news

Out in the Bering Sea, fishermen chasing salmon notice shifts in migration patterns never seen before. Pack ice that once protected coastal communities forms later and melts earlier. In Cook Inlet, salmon streams show a sudden increase in temperature. What had once been scientific speculation has now become accepted fact — research backed up not just by hundreds of studies, but anecdotal observation.

A global climate change is under way, and Alaska fishermen are on the front line.

“I think the writing’s on the wall. I think it’s pretty clear there’s a big problem,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “I think we’re hearing acknowledgment of that fact from all quarters.”

One place where acknowledgment is coming from is Washington, D.C. In mid-February, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, addressed climate change in a speech before the Catholic University Law School.

“On Capitol Hill there has been a recent shift in the debate on climate change,” she said. “As more and more information becomes available, I believe there is now almost universal acceptance that our planet is warming.”

What’s not so clear, though, is how to address climate change, and what the fishing industry can do about it.

“I think people know, the academics know, we’re the first ones, we’re the front line on the adverse effects,” said Buck Laukitis, a Homer salmon fisherman. “What we can do is kind of an open question.”

The Marine Conservation Council thinks fishermen should be part of the solution. One program in the works is “Fishermen as Front Line Witnesses to Climate Change,” Siy said. That program will involve fishermen as a force for research, and enlist them in research like winter sampling of water temperature.

“Fishermen could help close those gaps (in data) by working with scientists and developing a more complete picture of what’s going on,” Siy said.

The Marine Conservation Council recently hired fisheries biologist Peggy Murphy of Juneau to research issues relating to climate change. The council also is developing a “Coastal Compact on Climate Change.” While that is still in the works, Siy said it will be a call to action to be signed by coastal communities and other organizations asking policy-makers to take decisive action on climate change.

How climate change is affecting fishermen also is an open question. With warming oceans, some species could benefit, while others will decline. Ten-year, or decadal, oscillations in species numbers could shift to 15-year or longer cycles.

“It is reasonable to assume that climate change could halve or double average harvests of any given species,” researchers Gunnar Knapp, Patricia Livingston and Al Tyler said in a paper on the human effects of climate change they presented last fall at the 135th American Fisheries Society annual meeting in Anchorage.

Climate change has made some changes in managing the resources. Laukitis noted that the Alaska Board of Fisheries has relaxed some opening dates, such as in False Pass, because fish are showing up earlier.

Beyond that, he said he hasn’t seen the fishing industry address climate change.

“We’re keenly aware of the problem,” Laukitis said. “I just don’t think the industry as a whole has come up with a way to approach it.”

Siy agreed with Laukitis when it came to specifics.

“We’re at this state now where we’re seeing greater and greater awareness, but it’s not clear what we all need to be doing,” Siy said.

In her speech, Murkowski said Congress was taking two policy approaches: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in research and technology. Because of its impact on the U.S. economy, Murkowski doesn’t support the Kyoto Protocol, she said, but she does think other attempts to cap emissions are worth looking into, such as the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. Murkowski also supports new technologies to reduce carbon emissions.

The Alaska Legislature is also looking at climate change. Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, has filed Senate Bill 278 calling for the creation of an Alaska Climate Change Task Force to make recommendations that would address the near and long-term effects of climate change.

In the House, Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, have filed House Concurrent Resolution 30 to create an Alaska Climate Impact Assessment Commission to identify the effects, such as coastal erosion, that could be caused by climate change, and to come up with policies to deal with these effects. Both bills are still in committee.

Laukitis noted the irony of fishermen being concerned about climate change while at the same time using big inboard high-horsepower engines to get to fishing grounds.

“We can’t be too sacrosanct or self-righteous,” he said. “We’re burning fossil fuels up our stacks.”

Murkowski called for global cooperation to address climate change — but not along the Kyoto model.

“Our greatest progress will come by a cooperative global effort that combines the best technologies and thinking to reduce greenhouse gases, helps developing countries adopt new energy technologies and brings energy and economic development to the countries with extreme poverty,” she said.

As Congress and the Legislature deal with the problem, fishermen have other things on their minds.

“A lot of fishermen aren’t in the big policy,” Laukitis said. “They’re trying to figure out how to repair their nets to feed their families.”