Veteran longline harvester Linda Behnken of Sitka, Alaska, is being honored for her advocacy of sustainable fishing practices and support of coastal fishing communities dependent on the ocean for their livelihood and way of life. The Heinz Family Foundation, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, will present Behnken on Nov. 19 with its prestigious 25th Heinz Award in the environmental category along with an unrestricted cash award of $250,000.
Behnken came to Sitka in 1982 to begin fishing to earn money for college. After earning a master’s degree from Yale she returned to skipper her own boat. These days she’s still fishing commercially for halibut and black cod, with her husband and two sons. She is also the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, has served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and has engaged in long term efforts to improve the fishery economies of coastal communities, train young fishermen in how to have a successful career in fisheries, improve fisheries management and promote more fisheries research.
“her success in achieving collaboration between scientists, industry and the fishermen who work the ocean for their livelihood is a model for effective environmental change,” said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation. “Her efforts to drive policy and practices that protect the stability of Alaska’s coastal fishing communities and the ocean ecosystem o which they depend not only give us hope they demonstrate what is possible when seemingly competing interests work together.”
Among Behnken’s achievements with ALFA has been a six-year grassroots campaign to secure a ban on commercial trawl fishing in federal and state waters off of Southeast Alaska. The ban now overs over 100,000 square miles, enabling protection of deep-sea corals and sponges, as well as long-lived rockfish populations. Her efforts have also led to establishment of ALFA’s Fishery Conservation Network, which engages fishermen in collaborative research with scientists to address conservation challenges and improve the viability of small boat fishing.
“We are asking managers to address bycatch of king salmon, halibut and crab and to protect these iconic and locally important species for Alaska,” Behnken said. “This battle is common around the country, where people are struggling to prevent family businesses and communities from becoming collateral damage to big industry whether it’s farming or ranking or fishing. This is what we’re up against, and climate change has exacerbated that challenge.”
ALFA has also established Alaskans Own, a community-supported fishery through which consumers can buy chares of a harvester’s catch. Revenue generated by Alaskans Own is invested back into the conservation of local fisheries.