Peter Huhtala, an oceans defender, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I work with Pacific Marine Conservation Council, a West Coast nonprofit that brings together commercial and recreational fishers, marine scientists, environmentalists, and others who care passionately about the long-term health of our marine ecosystem and the communities that depend on the life of this ocean. My title is senior policy director, and I work within a non-traditional, cross-hierarchal management system in which four of us form a “Staff Executive Committee” that functions like an executive director. One of the members of our board of directors affectionately calls this our “communist-anarchist system,” but it’s really a partnership that works amazingly well because my staff colleagues and the board are such outstanding, committed individuals. PMCC, as we tend to call the group, has offices in Arcata, Calif., Astoria, Ore., and Port Townsend and Bellingham, Wash.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Well, here’s the short version:
There are several species of rockfish that live off the West Coast and in Puget Sound, all of the genus Sebastes (“the magnificent”). Often these fish are marketed as Pacific red snapper or rock cod. These fish grow slowly and reproduce much more successfully later in life. They have lifespans of 50 years, 80 years, 120 years — in some cases more than 200 years. It has taken some time to begin to appreciate the life history of these fishes, and it has taken fishery managers even longer to accept the reality of the biology that should inform their regulations.
An advisory body called the Pacific Fishery Management Council, or PFMC, is charged with regulating most fisheries in federal waters off Washington, Oregon, and California. The decisions made by PFMC, and ratified by the secretary of commerce, have resulted in the severe depletion of several rockfish populations in recent years. Some have been reduced to less than 10 percent of their historic biomass.
The overfishing of these rockfish not only threatens the species and the ecosystem in which they live but hurts coastal fishing communities that depend on rockfish for food, income, and recreation. It gets worse because many rockfish species swim among other fish that are valuable commercially or desirable for sport catch. Because of the legal requirement to rebuild the rockfish populations, catch of healthy fish stocks must be curtailed if hooks and nets are also bringing up the depleted rockfish.
The ideal world for Pacific Marine Conservation might include all of the rockfish populations returned to abundant numbers, with a marine ecosystem in balance and the living resources of our ocean supporting sustainable, natural resource-based economies in thriving coastal towns.
How does your work relate to the environment? What environmental problem draws your focus?
It all does — our research group has specialized in studying environmental problems in the broadest sense — everything from nuclear war, epidemics, and household size to the loss of biodiversity and the subsequent decay of ecosystem services.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I type on plastic keys, dial in to teleconferences, and fly in airplanes. All these and similar actions are intended to influence fisheries management and marine policy. I sometimes attend meetings of the aforementioned PFMC and testify at a table with a microphone in various large ballrooms at corporate hotels, attempting to convince the managers that they should accept the solutions we’ve developed. Then I go out into the hotel hallways and lounges, where the real convincing takes place. I meet with congressional staff, and sometimes members of Congress, and explain the need for fisheries research and monitoring, or the need to strengthen the conservation mandates of ocean governance, or the need to reform advisory bodies like the PFMC to better serve the public. I talk with environmental leaders, fishers, scientists, fishery managers, community leaders, and especially with the people within PMCC. I scramble through papers and words and regulations and relationships to make sure that the trampled rockfish populations will ultimately flourish.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Forty years ago I was a 12-year-old with a fascination for marine biology and a growing interest in politics. Politics turned to activism during the years of the Vietnam War, while my passion for the wonders of the natural environment continued to grow. I guess that the seed of marine politics has been here for a long time.
I’m a woodworker, a musician, and a writer. I’ve worked with mentally challenged and developmentally disabled people, and within the mortgage banking profession.
When I came to PMCC almost four years ago, I was the director of a community-based nonprofit called the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, or C-DOG, challenging a huge U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to deepen 100 miles of the Columbia River shipping channel. This was an environmental nightmare opposed by conservation groups, fishing interests, and coastal communities. We had successfully delayed and modified the project (which remains the subject of lawsuits) when I accepted the opportunity to work with PMCC.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
2,867. That’s down from a peak of about 4,500. I keep several folders and I know that I should create more, and be more ruthless about what I delete. But you know what? I’m not fastidious. This probably impairs my efficiency; it’s likely a vagary of ego that I rationalize as a side effect of my overworked obsession. Nonetheless, I could use technology more effectively …
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, while it includes many very nice people, has some systemic flaws common to the other seven regional fishery management councils. Almost all the appointed members are from the fishing industry. It’s great that fishers are at the table, but shouldn’t the non-fishing public also be involved in managing a public resource? Only one conservationist serves on a fishery management council anywhere in the U.S. Members of these councils are also exempt from the standard conflict-of-interest regulations that apply to every other federal advisory body! In addition, these councils, though not comprised of scientists, vote on biological decisions.
But it’s not even this system, which corrupts science with politics, that irritates me the most; it’s the people who, knowing that what they’re asking will harm the marine ecosystem and coastal communities alike, demand of the system decisions that result in short-term liquidation of living marine resources.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I’ve got to give credit here to the leadership and employees of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries program. While we do not always agree, they have generally been forthcoming. Their scientific divisions in particular have shown an interest in working together to further conservation objectives and address community concerns.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Astoria, Ore. I live there now, after stints in Laguna Beach and Morro Bay, Calif., and Portland, Ore., among other West Coast domiciles. I actually reside a half block from the house where I grew up.
What’s on your desk right now?
The draft report from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, a desktop computer, a laptop computer (my primary machine), August-to-August planners from this year and last, a Hipfish magazine, a Stanford University critique of fishery management councils entitled Taking Stock, a fat binder with material about essential fish habitat, a report on the distribution of corals and sponges off the West Coast, too many notices and policy opinion pieces, and very little room. I guess that I could tidy up …
Who is your environmental hero?
Check out Dr. Milton Love, proprietor of The Love Lab.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. Bush.
What’s your environmental vice?
How do you get around?
Canoe for my local waterways. There is also a fabulous antique trolley that plies Astoria’s waterfront and stops near my office. Then there is my Subaru Legacy wagon, which I very much love to drive (see previous answer).
What are you reading these days?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I love to be self-righteously right!
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I absolutely love the Columbia River estuary and all the tributaries and side channels. I think that I have a map of this ecosystem built of blood within my body.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
I think that John Kerry has a chance to win the presidency. The Senate could also turn to the Democrats, if people like Tony Knowles of Alaska are elected.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
I have encouraged the press on occasion to describe me as a conservationist. This is probably a more inclusive term here in the Northwest, and slightly more socially acceptable. And besides, neither the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group nor Pacific Marine Conservation Council are specifically environmental organizations. I’m called an environmentalist nonetheless, and I accept the label with pride.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Communicating within itself.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Environmentalists often fail to make the connection of responsible environmental policy to social and economic balance. Economics needs to be treated as a science and fully and openly reviewed in discussing environmental issues. The social effects of decisions need to be quantified as best as possible. The environmental movement often does not need to fight with social and economic interests, but rather can discover consensus solutions. Polarizing strategies can sometimes be effective, but reaching out to build broader constituencies is another path toward positive change.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
Liquefied natural gas production and distribution.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Go to FairIFQs.org, follow the Take Action link, and act!