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David F. Arnold, The Fishermen's Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska.

David F. Arnold, The Fishermen's Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press 2008)

THIS IS A FINE labour and environmental history of the Southeast Alaskan salmon fisheries from before First Nations' contact with Europeans to the present. Arnold argues that the labour that took the fish from the water defined long-term human interactions with salmon. He points out that, while the other elements of nature have agency in history, only humans self-consciously construct culturally and socially the meanings of their interactions with the rest of the natural world. Conflicting social relationships, largely along class and ethnic lines, defined such constructions in the Southeast Alaskan case.

Beginning with the pre-contact Tlingit and Haida peoples, salmon fishers have always had the potential to harm the salmon populations they exploited. According to Arnold, Aboriginal peoples were not "ecological Indians" who lived in a ritualized harmony with nature. (15) Rather, they possessed efficient labour organizations and technologies that had the capacity to strain salmon populations. The Tlingit and Haida used clan-based property rights to control access to the fish, ensuring the viability of their long-term interdependence with the animals. Early Russian traders hoped to exert more control over the salmon fisheries, but remained dependent on Aboriginal fishing and trade. Already proficient in trade, the Haida and Tlingit integrated rapidly into European exchange. The transfer of Alaska to the United States in 1867 brought the American military to the region, which ensured the subordination of the Haida and Tlingit to a more imperialistic organization of the salmon fisheries.

American commercial interests and settlers colonized the Alaskan fisheries under a state-sponsored laissez-faire doctrine that salmon and other natural resources were so abundant that they should be open to all industrial effort. The result was unregulated expansion of the fisheries through settlers' competition with Aboriginal peoples and by the proliferation of new fishing gears and practices. Stifled by government, Aboriginal peoples largely abandoned protests against such changes in favour of adaptation to them. By the late nineteenth century, over-exploitation of salmon was apparent, and the federal government embraced Progressive conservation. This conservation focused initially on failed efforts to calculate maximum sustainable yields, then turned to artificial propagation and habitat "enhancement" in the belief that the natural world might be rationalized for more efficient industrial production. Such conservation efforts did little except to provoke resistance from Aboriginal fishers and small-scale settler fishers who felt marginalized in favour of larger enterprises. By the early twentieth century, the formation of an Alaskan legislature and the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) co-opted much of this resistance into a local struggle against non-resident industrial fishing interests. While independent fishers initially supported the ANB and experimented with unions to preserve their place in the fisheries, federal regulations permitted the continued over-capitalization of fishing and the related problems of open-access depletion of fish. Fishers were unable to overcome the many divisions based on ethnicity and type of fishing gears to resist these problems throughout the late twentieth century.

Differing concepts of property rights are key elements in the conflicts between the groups involved in the salmon fisheries. Arnold proposes that we can understand these differences in settlers' and officials' views of the "frontier," although he does not suggest the Turner thesis. Arnold defines the frontier as a socially constructed sense of place consisting of five attributes. Frontiers are places that allow people a sense of abundant resources. Such apparent abundance permits many newcomers to feel independent and free. Such feelings are reinforced by a perception of "bold landscape." (9) Frontiers are also places where different cultures meet, and are places in which people feel that they may construct new destinies or see new historical horizons.

Arnold points out that settlers' construction of the frontier overlooked the Tlingit's and Haida's use of clan-based property rights to control the problem of open-access depletion of fish populations. Most settlers embraced the concept of frontier because the natural bounty it implied promised independence and freedom from the more rigid social and economic relations of capitalism elsewhere. Although settlers did not come primarily as part of a colonial process of dispossession of Aboriginal peoples, they required a concept of more open and unregulated property rights to permit the realization of their own non-capitalist aspirations. The ascendance of such rights had an ironic long-term impact: small-scale fishers lost out to larger industrial interests in the struggles for quota allocations in the late fishery, and at least some Aboriginal fishing interests continued the process of adaptation by becoming as ruthlessly capitalist as the earlier non-resident ones from the south.

Settlers' concept of maritime resources as being open to all was necessary to their concept of the frontier. Their views coincided with a federal doctrine that was inherently open-access rather than common-property in nature. When federal officials spoke of the seas as common to all, they really meant that the seas were open to all. Such openness is very different from the common-property regimes developed by communities to regulate access to resources by custom, tradition, and law. The clan-based property rights of the Tlingit and Haida were one such form of controlled access to common property. As Arnold points out, independent fishers had developed a "moral ecology," which potentially implied that no specific interest had a right of unrestricted open access to fish if it meant that others would lose their rights through the diminution of the resource. Arnold argues that the social conflicts of the Alaskan fisheries ensured that longstanding Aboriginal common-property regimes or potentially new ones based on such a moral ecology would be displaced by capitalist development.


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Author:Cadigan, Sean T.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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