In the wake of the BP disaster, we’ve heard powerful stories from fishermen whose livelihoods may have been destroyed for decades or longer. However long it takes for the Gulf’s fish, oyster and shrimp harvests to recover, those who’ve made their livelihoods harvesting them will need to create a powerful common voice if they’re not going to continue to be made expendable. A powerful model comes from Seattle and Alaska salmon fisherman Pete Knutson, who has spent thirty-five years engaging his community to take environmental responsibility, creating unexpected alliances to broaden the impact of their voice, and in the process defeating massive corporate interests.
"You’d have a hard time spawning, too, if you had a bulldozer in your bedroom," Pete reminds us, explaining the destruction of once-rich salmon spawning grounds by commercial development and timber industry clearcutting. Pete could have simply accepted this degradation as inevitable, focusing on getting a maximum share of dwindling fish populations. Instead, he’s gradually built an alliance between fishermen, environmentalists, and Native American tribes, persuading them to work collectively to demand that habitat be preserved and restored and to use the example of the salmon runs to highlight larger issues like global climate change.
The cooperation Pete created didn’t come easily: Washington’s fishermen were historically individualistic and politically mistrustful, more inclined, in Pete’s judgment, "to grumble or blame the Indians than to act." But together, with their new allies, they gradually began to push for cleaner spawning streams, rigorous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and an increased flow of water over major regional dams to help boost salmon runs. They framed their arguments as a question of jobs, ones that could be sustained for the indefinite future. But large industrial interests, such as the aluminum companies, feared that these measures would raise their electricity costs or restrict their opportunities for development. So they bankrolled a statewide initiative to regulate fishing nets in a way that would eliminate small family fishing operations.
"I think we may be toast," said Pete, when Initiative 640 first surfaced. In an Orwellian twist, its backers even presented the measure as environmentally friendly, to mislead casual voters. It was called "Save Our Sealife," although fishermen and environmentalists soon rechristened it "Save Our Smelters." At first, those opposing 640 thought they had no chance of success: They were outspent, outstaffed, outgunned. Similar initiatives had already passed in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, backed by similar industrial interests. I remember Pete sitting in a Seattle tavern with two fisherman friends, laughing bitterly and saying, "The three of us are going to take on the aluminum companies? We’re going to beat Reynolds and Kaiser?"
JESUS WILL RIP YOUR HEAD OFF
But they refused to give up. Instead, Pete and his coworkers systematically enlisted the region’s major environmental groups to campaign against the initiative. They’d built up longstanding working relationships, so getting them involved was easy. They also brought in the Native American tribes, with whom they’d also painstakingly built coalitions and with whom they were now accustomed to working with.
Equally important, they enlisted some unexpected allies. When a local affiliate of the fundamentalist Trinity Broadcasting Network broadcast a segment supporting Initiative 640, a fisherman who was a member of the highly conservative Assembly of God churches and who Pete had helped get engaged, called the reporter. "Do you know who Jesus’s disciples were? he asked. "They were fishermen. What do you think Jesus is going to do when he comes back and finds out you’ve stopped people from making a living by fishing? He’s going to rip your head off."
Taken aback, the reporter apologized and Trinity gave the fishermen a half hour to make their case on the show. Later this same fisherman, together with some others, persuaded his minister to give an invocation against corporate greed on the steps of the Washington State Capitol and to send a letter challenging the initiative to three hundred Assembly of God congregations. "We’ve got to keep approaching the Pentecostals," Pete said, later on, thinking back on the campaign. "Lots of their members are getting economically screwed. They mistrust the giant corporations. But if we don’t reach out to them and establish some dialogue, they’re going to be pulled into the right-wing coalitions."
Pete’s group also worked with the media to explain the larger issues at stake. And they focused public attention on the measure’s powerful financial backers, and their self-serving stake in its outcome. On Election Night, remarkably, Initiative 640 was defeated throughout the state. White fishermen, Pentecostals, Native American activists, and Friends of the Earth staffers threw their arms around each other in victory. "I’m really proud of you, Dad," Pete’s son kept repeating. Pete was stunned.
"Everyone felt it was hopeless," Pete said, looking back, "just as people say the Gulf fishermen don’t have a chance when they go up against BP for the destruction of their livelihood. The Exxon Valdez spill just destroyed the value of our product for years, and the same thing is likely in the Gulf. But you have to stand up whatever the odds. If we were going to lose that initiative, I wanted at least to put up a good fight. And we won because of all the earlier work we’d done, year after year, to build our environmental relationships, get some credibility, and show that we weren’t just in it for ourselves."
We often think of social involvement as noble but impractical. Yet as Pete’s story attests, when we reach out broadly enough to find new allies, it can serve enlightened self-interest and the common interest simultaneously, while giving us a sense of connection and purpose nearly impossible to find in a life devoted purely to private pursuits. "It takes energy to act," said Pete. "But it’s more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself you’re powerless, and swallow whatever’s handed to you. The times I’ve compromised my integrity and accepted something I shouldn’t, the ghosts of my choices have haunted me. When you get involved in something meaningful, you make your life count. It blows my mind that we beat these huge interests starting out with just a small group of people who felt it was wrong to tell lies."