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Kodiak

by Mike Hagler

July 3, 2007

Kia Ora, Mike from Greenpeace New Zealand, a campaigner on board the Esperanza, here again.

We commenced sailing again this morning after  a day long visit in Kodiak where we met with representatives of two tribes, Afognak and Kodiak, with an invitation for Greenpeace to return for a larger roundtable discussion in September.  The people we met with responded enthusiastically to the idea of developing Marine Cultural Heritage Zones that Greenpeace is proposing.   George Pletnikoff, our lead campaigner on this journey through the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea, has writtern about this proposal in earlier blogs that you can read below.

conomic malaise are everywhere around Kodiak these days.   They’re waiting for the return of the King — red king crab, that is, not Elvis.  Kodiak Island’s red king crab fishery hit its peak in 1965, with a harvest of 94 million pounds of crab valued at about $12 million.  However, these catches soon plummeted and the fishery closed in 1983, and has been closed now for more than a quarter of a century.

Abundant blue king crab, Tanner crab and shrimp populations also declined some years later.   What you could definitely call the deadliest catch.   Decades of fishing restrictions that followed have failed to increase crab populations to anything close to what they were in their heyday.

Some authorities attribute the collapse to overharvesting, while others speculate that climate change might be the culprit — an hypothesis that the fishing industry itself likes to believe.  "It wasn’t us, it’s the climate".   Maybe it was a bit of both; no one is certain.  However, it does underscore the importance of taking a precautionary approach to the management of fisheries.    If regulatory authorities set lower, much more cautious levels of allowable catch as a fishery develops, instead of sanctioning the ‘gold rush’ modus operandi, the chances of survival of any harvested wildlife population in the sea and its ability to withstand fluctuations in the natural environment are vastly enhanced.    It’s not a ‘get rich quick’ formula, but it’s key ingredient in the recipe for sustainable fishing — fishing that can continue to support communities’ economic needs while carrying on for generation after generation after generation into the future.

Our Kodiak stop was preceeded the previous day by a visit to Port Graham, a small coastal village of about 300 people, where we met with Alutiiq tribal elders and other community members.   We learned about the struggle the community has been engaged in for many years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over permits it has issued over the years allowing the dumping of endless tonnes of dredge tailings from oil drilling operations in Cook Inlet.  The dredge tailings contain mercury, cadmium and other highly toxic heavy metals that are distributed by the tidal flow through the area and find their way into the small bay that Port Graham sits in further along the Cook Inlet.   Some of the substances that make up Earth’s crust are elements, substances that cannot be naturally broken down into simpler substances. A few of these elements are poisonous even if present in a low concentration. These are known as heavy metals. Examples of heavy metals include mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, thallium, and lead. 

Heavy metals bioaccumulate through the marine food web that the residents of Port Graham are at the top of.    Bioaccumulation of heavy metals is dangerous to human health, affecting the formation of blood cells. The build-up of heavy metals can cause malfunctions in the liver, kidneys, the circulatory system, and the movement of nerve signals. Some heavy metals may also play a role in the development of various cancers.   The residents of Port Graham, justifiably, have serious concerns about the human health impacts of this continuous diet of toxins; indeed, one community activist I spoke to remarked that the community has been experiencing a sharp rise in the rate of cancer in the community. 

The US EPA has done studies that show conclusively that heavy metals have bioaccumulated into the food web, but assures the residents of Port Graham that they are not at levels that are harmful to human health.    What a load of rubbish!  Scientists simply do not know at what level these toxins have damaging health effects, and certainly do not understand precisely how these metals accumulate and the effect of that, in the human body over time.   So, the residents of Port Graham have joined in a lawsuit against the EPA, hoping to force it to withdraw the permits from the oil companies that allow them to dump this toxic rubbish into Cook Inlet.  As the community activist I spoke to told me, "the EPA would never get away with this down in the lower 48, because people just wouldn’t stand for it, but because it’s happening to us, a remote community of native people, out of sight and mind, the EPA does get away with it."

This is but one example of the sorts of concerns held by the indigenous people of these coastal communities that this journey we are on aims to document.    As we head away from Kodiak this morning, and pass a pod of humback whales surfacing and breeching along the port side of the Esperanza, we are all aware that we are heading into a vast marine wilderness — a place where animal and man depend directly on the health and vitality of the sea — a place where men and women who understand and have respect for that fact may endure, as the native peoples of Alaska have done for so many thousands of years.

Kia kaha, Mike 

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