David Benton, head of the Marine Conservation Alliance, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, based in Juneau, Alaska.
What does your organization do?
MCA is a nonprofit organization established by the Alaska seafood industry that promotes sustainable fishing. America has an increasing appetite for healthy seafood, but we must be sure that fishing preserves species and their habitat for future generations. Alaska produces over half the nation’s catch, and the Alaska/North Pacific region has the best record in the country on conservation: There are no overfished stocks of fish, marine habitat is protected, and ecosystem concerns are taken into account.
We’re proud to represent, promote, and live by what is now referred to as the “Alaska Model” of fishery management — good science, careful monitoring, and strict enforcement. Alaska has made it a practice to set catch limits well below what scientists tell them is sustainable. We are constantly looking for ways to improve conservation, while maintaining strong fishing economies in our remote part of the world.
What are you working on at the moment?
In the next few weeks, Congress will vote on a rewrite of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the 30-year-old law that governs our nation’s fisheries. The stakes are high, especially for working fishing communities. Do we, as a nation, have the will to take what is good about our seafaring heritage and make it work in the 21st century? Can we balance both conservation and fishing? Or are we going to regulate working fishing towns out of existence to become just more tourist traps around the coast? We believe we have shown that you can have environmentally sustainable marine fisheries and maintain the culture and economy of fishing if you tackle issues from a local perspective with creative solutions. We are promoting our success story in the North Pacific — science-driven decision making — to be Congress’ guide.
The MCA also works closely with a variety of fishing organizations and communities to ensure the health and well-being of other wildlife that are closely tied to the sea. We’re working to protect, for example, the short-tailed albatross and the North Pacific right whale.
We’re also working on marine debris cleanup around Alaska’s coasts. With roughly 33,000 miles of coastline, this is no small task — it’s become one of the largest beach cleanup efforts in the nation.
How do you get to work?
That depends. Sometimes, I drive my rusted-out 1989 Toyota pickup over the bridge to the office. Sometimes, I take a skiff, if I am coming in to town from the lighthouse we are restoring — that can be a wet ride in Southeast Alaska.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I came to Alaska in the mid-1970s and started working for Friends of the Earth on marine issues. I moved on to work with a number of fishing groups, local governments, and Alaska Native organizations including one called Nunam Kitlutsisti (roughly translated, it means “Protectors of the Land” in Yupik, an Eskimo dialect). There I met a fellow named Harold Sparck, who lived in Bethel, Alaska, and who inspired me to reach higher and not take no for an answer. Harold got me good and hooked on marine conservation. I got to know a lot of folks in the villages, and they taught me a way of looking at stewardship that has stuck with me to this day — blending conservation with respect for the way of life in Alaska’s remote communities.
Eventually, I went to work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game where, by some strange twist, I became the state’s international fisheries negotiator. I held that job for roughly 14 years, working on behalf of the state on virtually every fisheries treaty now in force in the North Pacific. That job took me all over the world, from Moscow to Tokyo to New Zealand and the U.N. I also served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for nine years.
What this experience taught me is that the world would be a poorer place if we lost the way of life that fishing and the ocean have provided us and our coastal communities. Whether it is in a remote Eskimo or Aleut village in Alaska, the working waterfront of towns like Kodiak or Sitka, or the fishing ports in New England, there is a richness to our history and culture that cannot be replaced.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in California and spent most of my childhood in the desert. I live in Juneau now; it’s wet.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Getting a fax from the governor saying the Canadians had “borrowed” one of the Alaska state ferry boats in protest of our position on salmon treaty talks. It turned out that some Canadian fishers had blockaded the harbor and were holding the ferry hostage. I was the lead negotiator for Alaska on the salmon treaty talks, so I spent several hours trying to sort things out. Needless to say, the governor wasn’t too pleased with the situation.
What’s been the best?
When the United Nations adopted the worldwide ban on high-seas driftnets. They were one of the most destructive fishing practices ever employed, and I had been working along with a lot of other folks to get them banned.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I will probably get shot for this, but it’s the tendency of some environmental activists to stretch the truth or distort the facts to try to make a worthwhile case. They lose all credibility, and it sets back meaningful environmental progress every time.
Who is your environmental hero?
What’s your environmental vice?
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
I am working with a nonprofit to restore a lighthouse. It’s a great way to relieve stress.
Kite Runner was the last good book I read, along with a lot of mindless sci-fi.
What’s your favorite meal?
Huevos and strong Mexican coffee on the zocalo in Oaxaca.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I love the ocean in all its many personalities.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Biodegradable plastics that turn to nontoxic substances in six months or less. Our marine-debris beach cleanup program has already removed hundreds of thousands of pounds of plastics that end up in Alaska from all over the world.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Take a moment every day to look around you and appreciate the world, and do one small act of kindness.