From May 31 to June 15, 2014, I sailed with the Western Kentucky University “Toppers at Sea” program, who was participating in the Climate Change Challenge. We set out to learn what we could about the global issue of climate change from the perspective of four different disciplines. However, while it may be easy to sit in a classroom and learn about the effects of our changing climate in theory, to hear accounts of physical changes from an eyewitness is a powerful experience. I sat down with Captain Rick Fehst, a fisherman who appeared on the TV program “Deadliest Catch” and has worked the Bering Sea for over 32 years. He has been a Coast Guard licensed 1600 Ton Masters Inspected since 1984 and considers himself to be a “local observer” as well as a professional fisherman. I wanted to ask Captain Rick a few questions on what changes he has seen with his own eyes in the Bering Sea and elsewhere.
The first question I have here for you is “How do you define climate change?”
How do I define climate change? Well in my words climate change is noticeable when you have a lot of years in the same geographical region, my region being mostly in the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands. A lot of weather patterns originate in the Aleutians before they come across the Lower 48. So over the course of the years, I’ve seen a lot of fluctuation. We’ve had cold years, warm years…I’ve been through cycles. They talk about El Nino and La Nina….yeah I think to some extent there’s some truth to those 7 years, but that doesn’t always hold true, not in my mind anyways. So the world keeps talking about climate change being a warming trend and it is very true.
My first years when I came up to Aleutians…most of the volcanoes were very much ice covered to a very low altitude. Basically, these glaciers reached down to some of them sea level, some to several hundred feet. Today, most of these volcanoes barely have even a sign of a glacier, even in high altitudes. Most of these mountains are becoming very bare by the end of August, versus when I first came up there, you virtually never saw rocks. I have a home in Seattle, so I would fly from Seattle to Anchorage, and on that flight you go by some pretty good glaciers along southeast Alaska before you get into Anchorage. And some of those glaciers, Chiles for example, reached the ocean, and from 30000 feet, you can see they no longer reach the ocean but are more like 30, 40, 50 miles back. And that’s in 30 years…30 years!
So the weird thing about it all is that 3 years ago, we had record ice in the Bering Sea. The longest, the thickest, the furthest south reaching. We started getting northerly winds in October and they probably didn’t cease until the end of May. The icebergs were some of them 2 stories tall…they looked like giant train wrecks. Literal train cars piled on top of each other was what we were driving around trying to navigate through when we would try to haul gear. So that doesn’t really fit into global warming does it? You talk about global warming…why are we having like a record ice year? I think it really does have a lot to do with the jet stream.
Being a resident of Washington State and Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a spread of about 1900…2000 miles exactly, I experience these cold winters coming down through Dutch Harbor, swinging back up through Prince William Sound, blow through northern Canada and probably down into the great lakes…bypassing Washington State and Oregon, and they would then have a warm winter. So when we would have a cold winter, I could call my parents just north of Seattle and ask “What’s the temperature down there?” and I already knew without even looking at their weather forecast. “Oh its balmy warm!” while we’re in the teens or single digits. And when we’re in the 40’s in Dutch Harbor, I would call down there and say “Oh you getting snow?” and they’d say “Oh yeah its cold, cold, cold.” Well, without even looking at a weather picture I would know how the jet stream was working.
So, I think climate change to me is geographical, I think its altering in different areas. Places that didn’t see snow are seeing snow, and places that had a lot of rainfall are seeing droughts. It’s hard to say in Alaska because I think we are having colder winters sometimes and warmer summers…we’re definitely having warmer summers these last few years especially. Alaska used to get a lot of rain, and we’re not seeing a lot of rain in the summertime now. Last year was one of the driest we’ve seen on record. We used to see highs of 60 and were seeing highs in the 70’s and 80’s now. Sometimes the days in Dutch Harbor are in the mid 80’s. We’re warmer than Seattle! So it’s no wonder that things are warming up up there and things are melting. In my studies, it seems to me that the ozone layers are the weakest near the poles. So with all these aerosols and whatever is polluting breaking down the ozone layer, we’ve got some pretty big holes over Alaska, and we’re getting more of the Sun’s radiation; more so than other parts of the world. So it’s like a magnifying glass burning a hole at the Arctic Circle increasing this rapid…you can look at satellite pictures! I saw one from 1979 of the Arctic Circle and the ice pack, and a cannery put one up from last year. What you see is less than half of the original ozone is there now.
You just talked a lot about some of the physical effects you’ve noticed in the Bering Sea and the Aleutians. Are there any other effects that you’ve noticed in particular, and what threats do you believe they pose to that region?
Well this might be a little off, but when I’m fishing out in the Aleutians brown crabbing, the currents seem to be getting stronger in the summertime than I’ve ever seen them. I thought they were supposed to slow down with the addition of freshwater, but they’re not. They’re actually getting stronger and I can’t explain how. There are a couple things going on in the Bering Sea right now that were just noticing. They have kept us on a marginal…the smallest threshold of quota to go out there and fish on. Back in the heyday, the port was producing about 180 million pounds of king crab. Right now we can’t even break 7.5 million pounds of catchable crab. Even that’s probably still hurting the stock. There’s a lot of political pressure to open up these seasons. So scientists are trying to figure out why the red king crab stock is not coming back. They’ve done studies, and they’re finding out that the acid levels in the ocean have risen dramatically here in the last several years. However, they still weren’t sure that had any correlation with the king crab species not coming back. But they’ve figured out that with these higher acid levels in the oceans that the juvenile crab cannot smell their food.
They’ve proven this in lab studies in Kodiak, and these juveniles aren’t reaching maturity and dying off because they can’t smell their food. These acid levels are just gonna keep going up. I don’t want to name any countries in particular, but if you look at the jet stream again and follow it in reverse, that puts you in Asia somewhere. And Alaska is unfortunately on the doorstep of their dirty air.
So these carbonation levels you just mentioned, I’m assuming you believe they will have a large economic impact on the area because of the lack of fish.
Oh yeah. The red king crab species used to be the number one across-the-dock revenue as far as value and that’s just one species. Unless these crab adapt and adapt quickly, there’s a good chance they’ll become extinct. It’s no joke. King crab is just one of them. Opelio is another stock in trouble, another major resource, another source of revenue for the state of Alaska and the local communities. It’s the same thing. They’re just not coming back.
We’ve been managing these resources extremely well, in my mind, since the mid 80’s. Mid 90’s we got even better. I think in the early 90’s the state of Alaska took a good hard look at how they were managing the fisheries, scientific data, models and such. They were very cautious. They lowered the GHL’s which are the guideline harvest levels of legal size crab. So I think they’ve been trying, but even that’s not working. So I think it’s something outside of even their management program that is causing these stocks not to rebound.
So even with the management they’ve implemented, you’ve still seen across the board declines in populations?
Yeah, I just named a few species. We can look at fish too. Bristol Bay used to have a huge sockeye salmon population, but they’re on the decline as well. They will predict 30 million fish and they’ll be lucky to get 20 (million). And this problem has been consistent with them for the past 4-5 years. They should be getting these large returns but they’re not coming back. They’re not surviving. With the practices followed by the trawlers…they’re under heavy scrutiny to stay out of areas where there’s salmon. If they catch so many in a by-catch, they’ll be shut down. So it’s in their best interests not to get salmon in their nets. So you can’t blame the trawlers, you can’t blame the fisherman…
It’s gotta be something else.
It’s something else. It’s when these little salmon leave and go out to sea for 3 or 4 years, and they don’t survive to come back. Pollock is another species in trouble. They need a certain temperature to be able to spawn. And with these warming oceans in their spawning grounds, there’s such a fine line between surviving and not surviving. That’s due to thousands of years of evolution. Do they need to evolve overnight? Can they? It takes thousands of years for these species to evolve. The rate of change we’re throwing at them…I don’t think they’re gonna make it. Who knows? I’m not a scientist. I just don’t like what I’m seeing.
That’s why you have us (Laughter)
So you talked a little bit about how the Alaskan government is trying to do something to alleviate some of the problems you’ve had. What, in your opinion, else could they do? Or have we reached a point where they can’t do anything more?
Which agency? There’s a lot of government agencies. Are we talking about fish and game? Are we talking about the governor? Are we talking about the coast guard?
Since we’ve been talking mainly about fish and game, let’s talk about Fish and Game.
As far as managing the fisheries? Or trying to save the fisheries?
I don’t think Fish and Game are the agency to talk to. If they had their way, they’d shut us down. If they had their way, they would stop fishing completely…save the ocean. You know, don’t harvest seafood. Leave it alone for a hundred years and let it revive itself.
And that’s just not feasible?
Well, the world’s gotta eat. We’re providing a food source for the world. Dutch Harbor being the number one fishing port in the country…billions of d0ollars, trillions of tons of seafood are coming across those docks and going across the world. So to shut it down completely just to rebuild the fisheries is not the right answer. Managing it well…that a good answer. From their point of view and ours. As fisherman, we don’t want to out-fish our stocks. We want to take care of it. We want to be responsible stewards of the ocean. That’s our livelihood. We want the next guys coming through to still have something to fish. So I think on management level of the fisheries, they’re doing a pretty good job. I think they’re leaders, as far as a lot of the other states in the country. I think a lot of other states could take a good look at Alaska and learn from them. Some of these states have completely lost their stocks and it hasn’t come back.
There are some species that seem to be thriving in the higher acidification of the ocean. For some reason, codfish are thriving all over the Bering Sea. Let me throw another fork in this. There are cycles out there in the ocean. If one species population grows so much especially, if they’re a predator, there are other species like crab…and codfish are predators of baby crabs. We’ve found codfish with 20..30 baby crabs in their stomachs. Right now the codfish stocks are in huge abundance up there. What the scientist have found…that’s one thing. But in the natural cycle of things, when one species becomes too much to support the volume of that species, their numbers will go down. When their numbers go down, the prey species population will go up. And I’ve seen this over 30 years, where we’ve had this fluctuation cycle of predator versus crustacean.
So you think it might just be coming at a bad time?
You know, we like to think that we know all the answers, but when you’ve been in the field as long as I have…halibut is a big predator of crab, but their stock is dwindling. They’re almost shutting halibut down in the State of Alaska. Why? We don’t know. Are they another species that can’t adapt to high levels of acid? Maybe. They’ve already proven that king crab are having trouble with it. Don’t know enough about the salmon yet, but they’re not coming back…at least not yet. It’s hard to say. But there’s no doubt that with all this dirty ocean, especially the pollution coming in on the jet stream, gets in the weather systems, the rain falls into the North Pacific, and the currents bring it right up to the Bering Sea. All that acid rain pollution…there’s no question that pollution is gonna to be a factor.
So you believe that good management would be enough, or at least help, with respect to the fisheries?
It would take a global effort. It would take all nations. It would take an entire world to clean up its’ act. It can’t just be one nation. With the jet stream and the way pollution is being carried around the globe…the United States could become the greenest country in the world, but that doesn’t mean that we’re gonna save our oceans. Our neighbors over there are not abiding by clean energy acts and they have a billion…two billion people to provide energy to. They’re gonna do whatever it takes to provide that energy. Coal being one of the cheapest sources of energy…what are we going to do? What is the answer?
It’s a hard question.
I think it’s almost impossible. I would love to have the answer and change the world. The only way we can change things is less dependent on dirt energy. The ocean is a clean energy. Are we utilizing that? They’ve already proven that you can use these wave things to capture the energy of the waves. And in the Bering Sea, I mean…(laughter)
(laughter) No shortage of waves there!
No shortage of energy there! And that’s renewable. As long as we’ve got waves, we’ve got energy. It’s gonna take a lot of money, and it’s going to take a global effort. I think we really need to take a look at slowing down our population growth, because it’s getting out of hand. You look at the numbers and it’s scary.
We talked about that today actually.
Just in the last hundred years. You can’t just keep adding a billion people every several years. A lot of these countries…they wanna come up to the times. I hate to say it but, like the western civilization lives. They threw out some pretty good numbers today. If everybody was consuming like we do, it would be like there were…115 billion people on the planet? Makes for a good science fiction movie
Christian Ryan wanted me to ask you a little bit about your opinion of sustainable fishing and if negative, how could it be made better?
This really came to light this winter in the State of Alaska. We have these stocks, Red King and Opelio, and I believe Congress just passed a bill where they need to be labeled “certified sustainable” fisheries. There was so much seafood being imported from other countries that weren’t exactly practicing good practices and managing their fisheries. It was just all about harvesting all they could to make a buck. Not really being good stewards and managing their fisheries that well. So the State of Alaska…we did not have a lot of our fisheries that we’d been fishing called “certified sustainable” fisheries. Brown king crab is one of them, not “certified sustainable”, and Opies, snow crab wasn’t either.
So Wal-Mart was buying a lot of Russian crab, importing a lot of Russian crab at a cheap price, and putting it on their shelves. They even used some characters off the show Deadliest Catch to help market some of this crab that was coming into the country. So I think Congress said, “Okay, I think we’re gonna have to set some standards to help protect the world’s oceans and not capitalize on other countries fisheries. If any company inside the United States wants to buy seafood, they need to be labeled certified sustainable.” This really came to head here this winter in Alaska. Wal-Mart pulled out and stopped buying Alaskan seafood this winter. Pulled it off their shelves, wouldn’t buy any more, and said they would not buy any more Alaskan seafood until it was labeled “certified sustainable”.
Well, we’ve been practicing probably some of the best fishery management for the last…couple decades at least. We had some learning curves in the 80’s, but for at least 20 years the State of Alaska has been doing pretty darn good managing their fisheries. Even without this label “certified sustainable” we already had sustainable fisheries. It was just a matter of wording.
The title. So we had to go through all this government red tape, get to these different tiers, had to be voted on, get in front of panels in Congress. But they finally got the Alaska fisheries, these different species labeled certified sustainable, which happened I believe in March or April of this year. So now Wal-Mart’s back buying Alaskan seafood again. It’s under my understanding that Wal-Mart will not purchase seafood from other countries unless those countries have also followed the same practice of certified sustainable fishing. So that’s a good thing.
That way there’s no incentive…
Right. That way we’re not exploiting other countries for cheap seafood just to put on the shelves, or plating these species to the point of extinction just to get cheap seafood to the consumer.
So, in your opinion, you would describe sustainable fishing as a good thing.
It is. It is. It makes sure that every state or country is following a good harvesting plan and policing that plan. You gotta police that plan. Once you’ve got it implemented, you’ve still gotta police it. In the State of Alaska, the plan is policed by state troopers, the US Coast Guard, the Department of Fish and Game to name a few. We’ve got a lot of agencies watching us very closely on our harvesting and delivering. When we meet those quota guideline harvest levels, we don’t even go a pound over, or there’ll be fines. It’s pretty stiff.
I’m assuming other people in the profession also have a positive view?
I would think so, yeah. All of us on both sides of the fence…the fishermen, the canneries, the local communities, the governments, the revenues…everything involved from the trucking to the shipping to the restaurants who are serving the food on their white tablecloths. I think everybody would agree with that…to maintain certified sustainable fishing.
So, what does climate change mean to you?
I’ve been a commercial fisherman for more than 30 years, and what I’m seeing in the commercial fishing industry in the State of Alaska is that these quotas are remaining rather small. They’re still “sustainable”, but I still think some of these species are in the hurt. Considering pollution, they may not be around forever. I’m not a scientist, but they way things are looking with the ice melt and the addition of freshwater changing the salinity, it seems that all these different species are going to have to undergo a major adaption, and fast, to survive. So for myself, due to climate change, I’m kind of reinventing myself. Like I said earlier, I’m a 1600 Ton Master Inspected, Coast Guard licensed since 1984. I’ve worked in other types of industry, I’ve tried the cruise ship industry, and in the last few years, Big Oil has come to town. Big Oil has come to Dutch Harbor. Shell has come with their big drilling rigs. They wait for the ice retreats and have tried to do some drilling up there by St. Lawrence and the Buford Sea.
So because of climate change, I’m reinventing. I see a change, and I am moving away from the fishing industry, and now I’m thinking “Well, what’s the future gonna be?” Energy has come to town. I’m gearing myself up to re-train, and either going to work for Shell or a rescue tug company that came from Florida up to Dutch Harbor. They also have the foresight that, with the Northwest Passage opening up and the Arctic Sea opening up, Dutch Harbor is the closest deepwater port there is to the Arctic Sea. There’s going to be a lot more traffic. And with that extra traffic, there’s going to be accidents. There’s going to be mishaps. Whether it be engine failure or whatever. And with this company that I’m changing to hopefully, I am going to become a rescue tug captain. I’m gonna go out there and harness onto an 800 foot oil tanker that’s in distress because it’s lost main power and is drifting into the beach and is going to become this huge EPA disaster by spilling oil all over. It’s going to happen. Exxon-Valdez is a good example of a big mistake.
Climate has changed my way of thinking. What am I gonna do with my career?
You mentioned that climate change is pushing you to reinvent yourself career-wise. What threats do you believe the Aleutian economy is under due to these changes?
From my observations, the Aleutian economy is kind of on a flat line. They’re not hurting, they’re not seeing growth, and they’re not seeing a reduction. But I believe that climate change with respect to the Aleutian economy means a different industry coming to town.
So the losses in the fishing industry may be made up in the energy industry.
Exactly, because Shell has got all their people, the hotels are full, they’re in town spending money at the grocery stores, they’re renting vehicles…So you’re at least flat-lining in the fishing industry, but you’re getting a new introduction to something else because of climate change. Because the Arctic Sea is opening up and he ice is disappearing.
As a direct result?
As a direct result. And not just the Aleutian economy but many other villages and towns up the coast that could have a port or a dock or a fuel dock or a grocery store. Things could be beneficial because of climate change to a lot of these Western Alaskan communities. Not everything’s bad.
There are some good things.
For the short term. We’re thinking short term. I’m thinking a century, maybe a century and a half, we’ll benefit from this global warming. But after that, we’re gonna be in trouble because of population growth, energy demand, used-up resources…up there in the Arctic Sea, they believe that 30% is undiscovered oil supply. That’s great, but how long is that gonna last? 50 years?
Especially with increased consumption rate.
Right! 50 years? That’s an answer for 50 years. What’s our long term answer? That’s the big question. There are thousands of ways we could do something. Small ways can make a difference. Every individual has got to make a choice to think about what you do every day. How many children are you gonna have? How far are you gonna drive your car today? Are you gonna put 5 people in it our just yourself? Flip that switch off when you walk out. Do you really need to have your house at 70 degrees? Or can you live with 55 or 60?
So you believe that with individual changes over the entire global population, we may be able to get somewhere?
We can make changes. I mean, look at the country of North Korea. They just shut off their lights and said “We’re going dead!” (laughter) Is that a bad thing?
Not if it works.
Of course it works! They’re a nation that doesn’t really have a choice, but would the United States shut off their lights at night? No, not with our lifestyle. It takes a major lifestyle change to do something like that. They’re (North Koreans) are’nt going out to discos and late night dinners. They’re all at home at night. What else can you do at night…
…in North Korea (laughter)
Have you ever experienced climate change outside of your profession? Do you have to change your behaviors when you come home from Dutch Harbor?
That’s a tough one. Usually when I’m done fishing, it’s late spring, so I’m headed south. Whether it be Washington State or Maine…all over the place because I love to travel. Not just the US, but the world. So when I get outside of my backyard, which is Alaska, I don’t know what your climate is normally like over the past 20-30 years. I can only go by what I see on the news. But what I see on the news is bigger storms, more frequent and intense hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. Across the globe, it seems that there are more frequent, intense storms.
But it’s hard for you to say because you haven’t had as much experience with other climates.
Yes, but in Alaska too, we’re starting to see these more frequent, intense, and earlier storms. We’re starting to see major hurricanes starting in late August that we normally didn’t experience until mid-November. The ones that we are seeing are bigger. We’ve already seen storms with 180 knot winds. 100+ is not uncommon, you just don’t hear about it in Florida. Nobody really thinks about the Bering Sea in Florida! (laughter) They got their own problems.
So no, I can’t say I’ve seen changes elsewhere because I’m not in those areas long enough. I only spend 2-3 months outside of the State of Alaska. Even though I have a home in Washington State, I only see it once or twice a year, and generally it’s almost a drive-by to make sure everything looks normal there. And to make sure the gardener does his thing. (laughter)
(laughter) Well, thank you very much sir. Thank you for the information. I’m sure it’ll go a long way with our class.
No problem. It’s really a joy to talk to students. You guys really are the generation we’re looking at to help do something. When I was growing up your age, this stuff hadn’t even been thought of. Global warming…what? Gas was 40 cents a gallon. We never even thought about it until the 90’s, and by that time, I’m already 45 years old. Your generation and the ones that will be born tomorrow are going to be the ones who make the difference
Well hopefully this interview will help someone get moving. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Really it has. And to get to know you as well.
Well this won’t be our last conversation.
I certainly hope not.
And if your fellow students want to sit down and chat, I’m more than happy to do so!
I’ll definitely bring it up! Thank you again!