Neoliberal and Neo-Communal Herring Fisheries in Southeast Alaska: Reframing Sustainability in Marine Ecosystems

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Marine Policy

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The transformation of Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) fisheries from communal to commons to neoliberal regulation has had significant impacts on the health and sustainability of marine ecosystems on the Northwest Coast of North America. Due to their abundance, seasonality, and sensitivity in disturbance, herring were carefully cultivated and protected by coastal Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian communities. The early industrial fishing era undermined this communalist approach in favor of an unregulated commons for bait and reduction fisheries, attracting non-local fleets and leading to conflicts with local Natives and tragedy of the commons style overexploitation of herring stocks by the mid-twentieth century. Since the 1970s, a re-regulated neoliberal sac roe fishery for Japanese markets has provided new opportunities for limited commercial permit holders, but with further depredations on local spawning populations. This paper uses frame theory and historical and political ecology to show how this transformation was justified by three critical but dubious (re)framings of Southeast herring populations under modern scientific management: (1) a reductionist framing of single species productivity models, expressed as herring “biomass,” within space and time (baseline scale framing); (2) the selective framing and privileging of human industrial predation under maximum sustainable yield (MSY) within a dynamic ecosystem of multiple predator populations (actor relations framing); and (3) the strategic framing of spawning failure events and policy responses to those events by professional fisheries managers (event–response framing). Finally, the paper argues for a new social–ecological systems approach, based on aboriginal models of herring cultivation, to sustain a commercial, subsistence, and restoration economy for the fishery.


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