With the layout of the online anthology underway, we took a break to meet with David Beebe, author of "A Beautiful Shrimp." David's essay on ocean acidification reflects his unique perspective as a commercial fisherman in Petersburg, Alaska.
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Tell us about life in Alaska.
My twenty-five years as a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska have given me, along with a living, insights into that mostly unseen place we call ocean, which covers three quarters of our planet. I live with my partner, Martha Smith, in Petersburg, in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. From May through November, I catch Dungeness crab and long-line for halibut, and in the fall I sometimes dive commercially for sea cucumbers. Diving has given me the privilege of being among the first humans ever to view these incredible underwater landscapes.
I've scaled back on commercial fishing for a variety of reasons. For one, capturing natural images and sounds has become as important to me as capturing fish to sell. Also, as the pace of commercial fishing speeds up, I feel compelled to define what constitutes "enough" in my life. Practicing frugality and efficiency gives me time to observe a group of feeding humpback whales or to hug the shoreline and spot a wolf, bear, or moose; these sights enrich my days.
In southeast Alaska, the tides may rise or fall as much as twenty feet in just six hours, making it difficult to tell where the place of land ends and that of river and sea begins. Place is actually a continuum; only humans draw lines on a place to mark that, this is different—and separate—from that. I've talked with retired fishermen about the history of this place. Their voices blend with black-and-white museum images and the logbook entries of early European explorers of this archipelago. Petroglyphs attest to an even earlier history of this place, as do cedar trees showing where bark was carefully stripped away.
What led you to become a commercial fisherman?
As Bob Dylan once said in a song, "I can't help it if I'm lucky." My fascination with the natural world led me to all manner of outdoor pursuits: canoeing, sailing, scuba diving, skydiving, surfing, camping, climbing, and sea kayaking. Not really knowing how to reconcile my need for being in wild places with the need to make a living, I stumbled upon the answer, which became the dream I've been living as a commercial fisherman.
Where did you grow up?
My father was in the Navy, which meant that our family moved to a different duty station about every two years. I lived in three different countries and several different states before graduating from high school. During my freshman and sophomore years, my family lived on a small Navy outpost on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. There I could watch the phenomenal near-shore runs of cod pursuing smelt. Every cast I made yielded a large, strong, thick-bodied cod determined to escape. The residents of those outpost villages were among the first people I met who knew what constituted "enough" in their lives and who knew that more would be too much.
With the Vietnam War draft still in effect when I graduated from high school, I decided to become a Navy medic. After three years of training, I specialized as a surgical technician. I was in charge of the operating room on a destroyer tender and performed all kinds of minor surgery. Then I served in hospitals in the southeastern United States rather than southeast Asia.
After six years in the Navy, I took a 10,000-mile road trip across the United States. I settled in Washington State and graduated from Western Washington University with a B.S. in visual communications. Soon afterward, I decided to become a fisherman and never looked back.
People often speak of Alaska as being on the frontline of the impacts of climate change. What has your experience been?
The southernmost tidewater glacier in the northern hemisphere, the LeConte Glacier, is a short skiff ride from Petersburg. In the past, fishermen used the dense, long-lasting glacier ice to keep fish fresh. These days it's apparent that LeConte and other nearby glaciers, like Baird and Patterson, have been in rapid retreat for years. The face of LeConte Glacier is now two and a half miles inland from where it was when early explorers mapped it. Now and then massive chunks break off from the glacier, depositing icebergs literally in our front yards at high tide. But even here in Petersburg, most fishermen don't realize that these calving events are connected with subtle changes that threaten the ecosystems upon which their livelihoods depend.
Alaskans read the news accounts of declines in the populations of marine mammals, sea birds, or fish, but because the state is so immense and the relationships within ecosystems so complex, it is difficult to establish cause-and-effect relationships.
I'm on the board of directors of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, and my discussions with other board members give me a statewide perspective on the impacts of climate change, which are both subtle and profound. Where ice once covered the sea, preventing wave formation, the water is now open, and waves are eroding bluffs and washing whole villages into the sea. But many more subtle effects are occurring that we don't see.
The ocean is acidifying far more quickly than most scientists had predicted. Not only does increased acidity dissolve delicate shell structures, it enhances the transmission of sound underwater, which could interfere with the ability of whales, fish, and shrimp to communicate and navigate. Ocean acidification has also been shown to disrupt some fishes' sense of smell, which may make it difficult for salmon, say, to find their way to their natal streams to spawn.
You mentioned in an email that you were once a mayor of a town in Alaska. Which one?
I was mayor of Kupreanof, the smallest second-class city in southeast Alaska (population about thirty). It was founded by area residents who wanted to preserve their roadless, rural lifestyle. They live "off the grid" and commute across the Wrangell Narrows to Petersburg by boat. On the basis of my written views, especially about timber sales, I was invited to live in Kupreanof and join the city council. Leading up to that time, heavily subsidized fifty-year logging contracts with pulp mills had resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres of forest being clear-cut and thousands of miles of logging roads being built. As with most impacts on the environment, decades must pass before the full biological extent of the damage is known. As mayor, I went to Washington, D.C., with other rural community representatives to testify in a Senate subcommittee hearing on legislation that would have increased industrial-scale logging on the Tongass National Forest.
Have you been writing for a long time, or was your submission to this book a new endeavor?
My submission was spontaneous, reflecting a new sense of personal urgency about climate change and ocean acidification. The public must be made aware and urged to act upon that awareness before it's too late to do anything about this moral issue.
Like my photographic pursuits, my creative writing has always been intensely personal. I felt I needed to develop my voice carefully over time and acquire a catalog of experiences and a personal record of film and digital "events" to draw on. But I can no longer afford the leisure of keeping private that which must be made public. And I no longer feel confident about continuing to be a commercial fisherman. There's too much at stake.
We agree, the stakes couldn't be higher with global warming. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us.