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4th of July in Old Harbor

by Mike Hagler

July 5, 2007

4th of July Sack Race at Old Harbor - Photo Yohena Raya
Photo Yohena Raya

Kia Ora, friends,

 Mike from Greenpeace New Zealand again, on board the Esperanza in the Gulf of Alaska.   Yesterday, we celebrated the Fourth of July, Independence Day, with the community of Old Harbor.  The community is nestled at the end of the long Sitkalidak Strait on the southwest of Kodiak Island, surrounded by foliage covered mountains capped by snow, but no trees (too much wind, I guess).   It’s breathtaking!

I use the word ‘community’ to describe Old Harbor, because that’s precisely what it is.   Two hundred and fifty, or so warm, welcoming, friendly folks, about 60 of whom are kids of various ages.  All the kids are known by name by everybody and it is obvious that the kids are regarded as treasures.

The Esperanza team celebrated the 4th with them and what a blast!   I think it was the best 4th of July celebration I’ve ever been involved in.   It started with a church service at the Russian Orthodox church.  The theme of the priest’s sermon was about the central importance of love and service to one another — the clue that binds people into sustainable communities.   We then headed off for the blessing of the fishing fleet followed by a boat race up down the strait which started in an orderly enough fashion, but deterioated into a free-for-all chaos that was hilarious, even though I was certain there was going to be at least one horiffic collision (that never, thankfully, happened).   Thereafter it was food, frivolity, games and fun all afternoon.   Many of us from the Esperanza joined in and by the end of the day we felt like part of a big family.

However, not all is well with the community of Old Harbor.   Being so isolated, it relies on bringing in the essentials that are needed to survive out here, beyond mere subsistence.   Heavily dependent on oil — heating and diesel oils — for heating, electricity and the operation of their boats has meant increasing costs in the face of rising fuel prices.    I couldn’t help wondering what these folks would do when the global competition for dwindling oil supplies really heats up and prices hit the $100/barrel mark

Food is also a major issue.   Not entirely subsistence, the community imports most of its food from Kodiak on the other side of the island by boat and that largely canned and processed food.   Of course, there is fish.  Lots of it, you’d think, but you’d be wrong in thinking that.   Yes, fish was once a readily accessible source of protein, micro-nutrients and essential fatty acids for the people of Old Harbor.  Just cast a line from the dock and you had a feed.  Not so any longer.    The draggers (bottom trawlers) have been coming into Sitkalidak strait for the past few years.  they come right up almost to the community’s dock in this very narrow strait.  As they fish (if that’s what you could call it), the draggers haul up anything and everything from the sea, leaving in their wakes a graveyard on the bottom of strait.   The locals say the strait is dying.  They now have to go out beyond the strait to more remote waters to catch fish to support the community.  For those in the community who have boats big enough to venture that far, that may be fine, although the cost of fuel to do that is now quite high.  For those who cannot afford the boats or the fuel, well, it’s not so easy.   One community member described how when you look out your window up the strait and see those big draggers coming right up in front of the village, it makes your heart sick.

This is one of the rationales for the Marine Cultural Heritage Zones that Greenpeace is promoting on our journey to visit coastal indigenous peoples’ communities of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.   The people of Old Harbor have enbraced the concept enthusiastically.  After all, it makes sense in the face of the senseless.    I’m amazed, but unfortunately not surprised, that Alaskan State authorities allow these draggers into these pristine waterways.  A few make profits while the traditional communities suffer the consequences.  Does anybody care?  Greenpeace certainly does.   That’s why we’re here.

Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve seen fishing insanity like this in my work as a fisheries campaigner for Greenpeace.   The story of the people of Old Harbor is being played out in the waters of traditionally dependent coastal communities around the world, especially in the Global South, in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands and Latin America.  Invading industrial fleets from the Global North, from European countries, the U.S., Japan, Korea, Taiwan are stealing the fish from the people who need it most in order to provide a high-priced luxury for the rich in the North.  The locals pay the price, however.   The big  trawlers will move right up in front of the shorelines of subsistence villages and drag the life out of them.   And then, once hauled from the water, the fish start a long migration north to the dinner plates of wealthy Americans, Europeans and Japanese consumers.  Left behind are marine graveyards and the ruined lives of subsistence villagers.    Having plundered their own waters in the North, the global seafood industry is is moving further afield and deeper.    The real declines and collapses of fish stocks worldwide are being masked by the catches enabled by new, more sophisticated technologies and the global sourcing of seafood, creating the illusion for consumers that there are still plenty of fish in the sea.  

But, the people of Old Harbour know for a fact that the fish and the other marine life that depend on them, the seals, and the the orca, have gone away.    And they must wonder, at times, what fate awaits us?  Could we be next?

From the Espy,

Mike Hagler     

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