Regulating a mystery: science, colonialism, and the politics of knowing in the pacific halibut commons.

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Regulating a mystery: science, colonialism, and the politics of knowing in the pacific halibut commons.

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Recognizing that environmental management is as much about managing people as managing biological resources, researchers in environmental studies have begun to pay increased attention to the human dimensions of natural resources and the environment. However, few of these scholars and managers have focused on the historical context of environmental management and the ways that history shapes people's interactions with natural resource issues. In this dissertation, I utilize a historical approach to examine the experiences of community members from the Alaska Native fishing village of Old Harbor as they interact with the regulatory and knowledge processes of the international Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) fishery. I argue that the colonial history of the United States is perpetuated into the present in the processes that guide the management of fish resources in Alaska. Specifically, I argue that this colonial legacy is exhibited in the politics surrounding Pacific halibut management where Western ways of knowing halibut come to dominate decisions made about the resource while Alaska Native ideas and interests in the fishery are pushed to the periphery. This has required Alaska Native halibut fishermen from communities such as Old Harbor to engage with new forms of natural resource science and management in order to participate in processes governing the use of their local resources. I show that in Old Harbor, the marginalization of local ideas about halibut resources has contributed to significant emotional and material impacts for community members including alienation from regulatory processes that impact their fishing activities and loss of access to fish resources that are essential to their livelihoods. To explore these issues, I employed an interdisciplinary methodology that included ethnographic experience in the community of Old Harbor and the regulatory agencies that manage the fishery, examination of historical and current halibut policy documents, participation in a fisheries science investigation into the growth dynamics of halibut in the waters surrounding Old Harbor, and over 40 interviews and oral histories with Old Harbor community members, halibut managers, and halibut biologists. I examine the interaction between Old Harbor and regulatory agency approaches to three aspects of the halibut resource: (1) Biology - ideas about the biological status of fish stocks and surrounding climate. Fisheries science research conducted with the International Pacific Halibut Commission to examine the changing growth patterns in the annual ring structure of halibut otoliths provides important details about halibut growth patterns and life history characteristics. Discussions with and observations of Old Harbor fishermen show that over the course of a long history of seeking these elusive organisms, community members have developed a number of important ideas about the biology, movements, and change of Kodiak area Pacific halibut. When these two as well as a number of other approaches to halibut biology were brought together in negotiations to develop catch limits for the fishery, Western science approaches to halibut biology tended to dominate the discussions. This domination presented challenges for both indigenous and non-indigenous fishermen who understand the resource in different terms. (2) Place - conceptions and meanings tied to fish in space. Old Harbor fishermen and halibut managers exhibit different approaches to the halibut fishing geography. Top-down spatial decisions made by managers and biologists - about issues ranging from where to place regulatory areas, at what scales to assess halibut, and where to hold policy meetings - have significant impact on the lives and geographies of Old Harbor fishermen. (3) Property rights - understandings of fish ownership. Old Harbor ideas about fish property rights differed in many ways from those inherent in the 1995 Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program that privatized the halibut fishery. The import of a private-property system under the IFQ program worked to erode Old Harbor ideas and systems of property rights within their local fisheries. As a result, the IFQ program contributed to a dispossession of Old Harbor's fish resources and to devastating impacts on the livelihoods of community members. Ultimately, this dissertation advocates that historical and geographical perspectives are essential for understanding natural resource issues. A historical orientation reveals a significant colonial legacy and social justice implications inherent in Pacific halibut management. While Western-oriented management of the halibut fishery has often marginalized Old Harbor approaches to fish, Old Harbor fishermen have responded to subvert, resist, and change halibut management processes in efforts to legitimize and institutionalize their own visions for the resource. They have continually brought their history and places to the management forum and never accepted domination by Western agency ideas about fish. Their efforts combined with the perspectives of managers and biologists who are concerned with protecting the resource provide a path towards imagining a form of fishery management that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. Feb. 2011. Major: Conservation Biology. Advisors: George Spangler, Jean O‘Brien-Kehoe. 1 computer file (PDF); xiii, 3385 pages, appendices A-B.

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Richmond, Laurie Shannon. (2011). Regulating a mystery: science, colonialism, and the politics of knowing in the pacific halibut commons.. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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