Our North Pacific Small Fishermen's Battle
A Fishing Family's Perspective (Far Eastern Press, Nov. 2015)
author Margaret Willson writes:
"(Rough Waters) just arrived and I am going through it, but it is fantastic
and I am so glad these kinds of perspectives and voices are having a
chance to get in print...I appreciate you taking the huge effort (I
know) to research and write this important book and I will let people
I know in Iceland about it."
~ Margaret Willson (Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge)
from Dave Otness, Cordova Alaska fisherman and activist:
Heartwarming and heartbreaking. . . Danielson-Mendenhall comes from a long line of Norwegian commercial fishermen. . . so she writes with sensitive yet accurate profundity, in an intimacy of place that conjures many memories for me. Our story deserves to be told and istold uniquely and honestly in (this) exhaustively researched book up to the present, including insights into fish politics that most have never deigned to imagine. . .
~ Dave Otness, Cordova, Alaska fisherman and activist
Kevin Bailey's 2018 Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of Our Ocean, cites Rough Waters
Other books by Nancy:
Beachlines: A Pocket History of Nome; (social history; George Sabo, 1997)
"Mendenhall goes beyond traditional retreads" ~Nome Nugget
(social history; Far Eastern Press, 2006)
Update: Orchards of Eden is cited heavily in a new book by Hanford History Project (Nowhere to Remember, WSU Press, 2018)!
I came to Alaska from the Puget Sound area in 1961 and for ten years
combined teaching and salmon trolling, mainly in Southeast. I moved to
Western Alaska in 1971, again to teach, also adult education and
administration. Summers have been mainly setnet fishing with family near
Nome, other subsistence, and lots of hiking, cross-country skiing.
I'm always writing. I have a particular interest in small commercial
fishermen, northern environment advocates, northern cultures, fiction (my novel out in 2019, "Storytellers at the Columbia") and oral
history interests. See my blog for current commentary.
Nome Nugget article
on Rough Waters
"A War Story That Is Not Over"
"In the first part of her book, as Mendenhall writes with a depth of intimacy and understanding that transports the reader back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s, she hints at coming troubles...In the second half (she) offers meticulously researched, and painfully detailed, analysis of how federal regulations have privatized fisheries and disenfranchised the small-scale fleet..."
National Fisherman review:
"Covers every angle on the North Pacific small fishermen’s battle... Mendenhall documents a way of life with exhaustive research and reporting. This history of the fishing fleet and its struggle is more intimate than what you’ll find in the news and official reports and more extensive and accurate than your grandfather’s memoirs."
Review of my Nome Alaska history book Beachlines (1997)
“Local Book recounts Nome’s other histories” Nome Nugget, 1997
"Tales of gold mining, dog-powered serum relays and devastating fires define the public consciousness of Nome, but they do not tell the city’s whole story.
In the first book to be published in Nome in two generations, local historian Nancy Mendenhall fills in the gaps.
Her 96-page “Beachlines: A Pocket History of Nome” covers the Gold Rush, but also gives accounts from dispossessed Native Alaskans who watched the stampeders occupy their land.
Mendenhall goes beyond traditional retreads of Nome’s past by noting other events perhaps less romantic to Outside consumers interested in mystique and legend."
events and articles about Rough Waters and other works
2019: soon to be published––my historical novel Storytellers at the Columbia set in the Hanford/Columbia River region in the '90s, with themes of environment, nuclear dangers, indigenous tribes, spirituality, social justice and love!
Nov. 2018 Professor Pinkerton of Simon Fraser U reviews Rough Waters
Oct. 2016 National Fisherman reviews Rough Waters
Sept. 2016; Aurora Magazine of U of Alaska showcases Rough Waters
June, 2016; Boston Globe review of Rough Waters!
June, 2016; Bristol Bay Times with Molly Dischner interviewed Nancy and discussed Rough Waters
June, 2016; Hakai Magazine reviewed Rough Waters
May, 2016: Rough Waters reviewed in Fishermen's Voice (Paul Molyneaux)
April, 2016: Rough Waters now carried in many libraries, including Oxford University in England
April, 2016: Pacific Fishing journal reviewed Rough Waters!
Feb. 24, 2016, Wed: Author reading: I will discuss Rough Waters at an event sponsored by Nome Arts Council/UAA Northwest Campus - NW Campus Conference Room, Nome Alaska, 7 pm
Feb 21, 2016: Rough Waters got a great writeup in Alaska Dispatch!/ADN
Nome Nugget (click link for online pdf, interview of author and article on page 16)
Review by a professor at Simon Fraser U (Evelyn Pinkerton, 2018):
"What could be more delightful for an anthropologist/political ecologist such as myself than a book which is both ethnography and political economy? In Rough Waters, Nancy Mendenhall covers the terrain in an amazingly comprehensive way. She has an insider’s view of what it means to be a small-scale fisherperson, since her whole family has fished for generations, in Norway, Southeast Alaska, and the north Bering Sea. But she knows the fish politics of not only these areas, but also of the hot spots of privatization of fisheries: British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and New England. Her book is a testimony to the havoc wreaked on coastal communities and their fishermen by what is euphemistically called “fleet rationalization” (getting rid of the small boats) and privatization in the form of Individual Transferable Quotas.
But this book is so much more than that. Mendenhall has kept track of the intricacies of policy-making, so she understands at the deepest level how the world of fisheries politics has evolved, and how small-scale fishermen have miraculously survived against all odds by sheer determination. What is most impressive is the maturity and balanced nature of her analysis, which seeks to understand and point ways through the morass, appreciate what has been accomplished, and suggest what needs to happen next. For example, while exploring the difficulty of small-scale fishermen in getting the support they needed in the first decade of Alaska’s Community Development Quota program, she also shows how much they eventually benefited from CDQs, the best thing that could have happened to them. Thus Mendenhall’s work serves as a much needed bridge between the ever-present critiques, and the big picture of where we need to go and what programs and tools, however imperfect, are helpful along the way. She knows her history and she tells it well, making it accessible and meaningful to a much wider audience than would otherwise have access to this intimate story." (~ Simon Fraser Univ., Dr. Pinkerton)
"In Rough Waters, Mendenhall has given us an exhaustively researched book in which she presents information on privatizing management regimes from around the world, while always relating her findings back to the independent and small-boat fisherman...A definitive review of the current trend toward individual vessel quotas, individual transferable quotas, catch shares, and other versions of privatization."
(~ Alan Haig-Brown in Hakai magazine)
"As long as writers like Nancy Danielson Mendenhall exist, the voices of the underdogs will be heard." (~ Paul Molyneaux, author The Doryman's Reflection)
A War Story That’s Not Over Yet
review by Paul Molyneaux in Fishermen's Voice :
"Nancy Danielson Mendenhall, who spent more than half a century in the Alaska salmon fishery, gives readers an intimate look at what small-scale fishermen have been up against in Alaska. In addition to her own experience, Mendenhall is heir to a family fishing legacy, and her book begins with stories that are personal and poignant. She describes how her family and their friends built their own boats and helped open up the commercial fisheries of the north. In addition to the commercial fisheries, she describes the importance of subsistence fisheries to Alaska and the role that fishing plays in both Native and non-Native Alaskan culture...
In the first part of her book, as Mendenhall writes with a depth of intimacy and understanding that transports the reader back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s, she hints at coming troubles. Dams, habitat destruction, increasing regulations, and competition from sport fishermen contribute to the “death by a thousand cuts” that many fishermen have experienced...
Fisheries are a vital part of Alaskan culture. Mendenhall notes that for most Americans, fisheries may occupy little more than a hazy corner of their consciousness. “It’s a different story in Alaska,” she writes, “where a recent poll found that 60% of the people still think that salmon is very important to the image of the state. Alaska is the only state that prioritizes subsistence fishing. People need to be able to get enough to eat and sell on a small scale, then commercial fishermen get their whack at the stocks, and after that, sports fishermen.”..
(Mendenhall's) stories are intimate and personal, revealing the values and cohesive spirit of the North Pacific fishing communities. But in the value system of the policy makers, things like intergenerational knowledge and cultural integrity cannot be measured in dollars, and so they are discounted...
Tolstoy once wrote that the history of battles is barely more than conjecture. Nobody knows really what the generals intended or how their orders were executed. Even those engaged in the fight have little awareness beyond the reach of their own vision. Mendenhall, after years of watching her friends and family struggle to stay in business, and many of them failing, finally recognized an institutional problem. “As I researched this book I discovered that although our federal government floods us with information promoting healthy, sustainable fisheries, its management is full of contradictions for the small fishermen, the majority…”
That’s putting it mildly, but in the second half of her book Mendenhall offers meticulously researched, and painfully detailed, analysis of how federal regulations have privatized fisheries and disenfranchised the small-scale fleet. Mendenhall’s play-by-play description of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s actions, from promoting Individual Transferable Quotas, to its unworkable programs ostensibly intended to protect small-scale fishermen and their rural communities...
She writes that the council passed a Community Quota Entity (CQE) program, intended to buy quota from large operations and sell it to communities of less than 1,500 people. But most towns could not meet the costs. Mendenhall quotes Sven Haakanson: “It cost us two million to get that community quota working. Two million.” According to Mendenhall, Haakanson’s community, Old Harbor, was the only one out of 42 that really got the CQE working for it...
The battle Mendenhall chronicles takes place throughout the Alaska and North Pacific region over the course of a hundred years, but has been most fiercely fought in the last three decades. Mendenhall’s meticulous research shows how corporate interests have taken over the pollock and crab fisheries, and how quota management has shrunk the state’s halibut and black cod fleets with little or no conservation benefit, especially in Western Alaska where the pollock fleet is allowed to kill and discard thousands of salmon and halibut, much of it underreported...
Countering the gains made by the privatizers of Alaska’s fisheries, Mendenhall notes a number of fisheries that have endured due to one fortunate circumstance or another. As in any battle, survival is a matter of luck. But the gist of Mendenhall’s book is that the surviving small-scale fisheries are the kind that should be intentionally restored and preserved...
After a certain amount of time, war stories become completely defined by the winners, but as long as writers like Nancy Danielson Mendenhall exist, the voices of the underdogs will be heard. Rough Waters: Our North Pacific Small Fishermen’s Battle, is a war story, and the battle is not over yet."
Fishermen's Voice, May 2016 Paul Molyneaux (author, The Doryman's Reflection)
From Dennis Brown, author of bestselling Salmon Wars:
"For any one interested in Pacific Coast fisheries, Nancy Mendenhall’s new book Rough Waters is hard to put down. Those not familiar with fisheries or fisheries politics, but interested in how neo-liberal economic policies are under-mining human societies all over the world, will also find this book a “must read”.
Mendenhall’s book is consummately researched and broad in scope--as befitting social science of the highest order. Yet her narrative is rendered with such intimate sensitivity to people, places and things at the local level so as to evoke poetry.
Mendenhall provides an encyclopedic overview of not only fisheries in her home sate of Alaska, but also Washington , Oregon, New England and British Columbia. Throughout her book she weaves together the common problems facing small boat fish harvesters everywhere—including depleted fish stocks due to habitat degradation, the challenge of dealing with increasingly complicated management regulations, and the perils of declining incomes vis-a-vis increasing operating costs.
Above all, Rough Waters, is a tour de force so far as exposing the insidious threat to small boat fish harvesters and coastal communities posed by a world wide governmental obsession with privatizing fish resources through Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQ) or Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ)—or “defined catch shares” as they euphemistically dubbed by the apostles neo-liberalism who promote them.
In the final chapters of the book Mendenhall offers a sobering, but realistic, appraisal of the daunting prospects facing small boat fish harvesters and the communities that depend upon them. Her analysis is a well thought out appeal for fish harvesters to empower themselves with greater technical knowledge and organization, when dealing with management agencies, as well as the need to build alliances with NGOs and the general public.
While Mendenhall’s criticism of the drive to economically redesign and privatize common property fisheries is not particularly new in fisheries literature, her first hand experience with the fishery elevates her voice to an unique and compelling stature.
Mendenhall is at her very finest in describing her years as a troller in Southeast Alaska, way back in the 1970’s. To any one her has ever fished commercially her stories will resonant to the deepest possible level. Moreover, her description of her present day participation in the subsistence fishery, based out of Nome Alaska, is seminal in pointing the way for both humans and wild creatures to sustainably co-exist in perpetuity. Her account of her own sons and their fishing adventures in small vessels in the wild expanse of Bering Sea makes for spellbinding reading.
Mendenhall exudes authenticity in the way she superbly describes the almost Will Rogers-like philosophical genius of her cousin George Morford, an Oregon troller with deep roots in the fishery. Morford’s life story in the fishery is subtly interspersed throughout the narrative, and he serves as a microcosm of the fate of fish harvesters all over the world. Both in the sense of the insidious and relentless victimization that small boat fish harvesters everywhere face because of ideology and misguided management systems, as well as for his undying sense of optimism, common to all fish harvesters. After decades of slowly being displaced from the Oregon troll fishery. Morford, late in life, rises phoenix –like and happily re-establishes himself as a troller out of Sitka, Alaska,
It is through the viva voce of individuals like George Morford, and many others, that Mendenhall is able to so thoroughly validate her overall thesis that fish harvesters are not the true threat to fish stocks the world over, as is commonly assumed. Indeed, she convincingly shows how commercial fish harvesters have become the unfortunate scapegoat victims of massive hydro-electric dams, bad forestry practices, industrial pollution, urban sprawl, over capitalized industrial fishing, to name but a few. In short, any one reading Nancy Mendenhall’s masterful account will never be able to naively look at the tragic enclosure the world’s fisheries commons in quite the same way."
~ Dennis Brown, author of bestselling Salmon Wars
a unique perspective...full of colorful and relevant stories which
highlight life as a fisherman (and) relates the struggle of small,
family-owned fishing operations against the politically savvy factory
This book brought me back to my time as a NMFS
fishery observer in the Bering Sea, while it also did a great job of
capturing the high-stakes politics that have created the current
fisheries landscape in Alaska. Bravo!" ~Michael Sloan, fishery biologist
"...I'm a fishery biologist. I care about fish. I also care about fishermen and the communities they support. I have read about the fishermen's problems because of declining abundance of fish, but until I read Nancy Mendenhall's book did the dry statistics become real people who work hard to get by on a shrinking resource and have to contend with policies that seem to care little for both the fishermen and the fish." (~ Jim Lichatowich)
"The world of fisheries management is about as esoteric a topic there is. Even if you have been involved in commercial fishing the gumbo of Federal and state laws, regulations, programs, mixed with mind numbing, endless commission meetings, and hearings and spiced with acronyms and bureaucratic jargon is daunting and incomprehensible. At the same time this system seems unable to deal with what most of us see as the core problem, the need to preserve our fish stocks.
Our marine resources are faced with a wide assortment of threats from overfishing, to climate change and a host of other environmental stresses. When faced with such a complex problem it often helps to look at one aspect of the whole system, a part that can serve as a canary in the coal mine a simple gauge to illustrate what is happening. In her new book Rough Waters Nancy Mendenhall focuses on the effect of modern fisheries management, especially the privatization of fisheries resources in Federal waters on small fishermen, and has found a good measure for gaging the health of the North Pacific fish stocks...
Small fishermen are the marine equivalent of family farmers. Like family farms they are the core of a romanticized image of fishing, and like family farms there is a hard economic reality behind that romantic view. The small family fishing operations on the North Pacific coast not only provided an economic anchor for coastal towns, but offered a reliable pathway for young people to earn a living. Rough Waters tells the story of how that pathway has become increasingly difficult if not impossible to follow. While telling that story Mendenhall describes the development of our current fisheries management system with its focus on privatization and industrialization of the fishing fleets.
Telling this story from the perspective of family fishermen makes the topic more interesting and human. It becomes the story of people, including Mendenhall herself, her children and cousin. Being told from this perspective it is not an objective look at management decisions which have at best underlined the demise of a way of life and at worst have hastened its end. Despite its partisan slant it does an excellent job of showing how the complex pieces of our fisheries management system came to be and how they fit together. Along the way it asks the obvious question – are the assumptions this system is built on valid? Given the continued decline in fish stocks, and the economic devastation facing small fishing communities and small family fishermen this is a valid question to ask."
~Andrew Crow, Alaska Cooperative Development Center
"Heartwarming and heartbreaking. . . Danielson-Mendenhall comes from a long line of Norwegian commercial fishermen. . . so she writes with sensitive yet accurate profundity, in an intimacy of place that conjures many memories for me. Our story deserves to be told and istold uniquely and honestly in (this) exhaustively researched book up to the present, including insights into fish politics that most have never deigned to imagine. . ."
~ Dave Otness, Cordova, Alaska fisherman and activist
"Nancy Danielson Mendenhall creates a vivid profile of a classic small business venture with a long history and an uncertain future. She details its importance -- especially to small coastal communities -- its joys and rewards, threats to its survival, and the complicated interplay of groups which would control, sustain, perhaps even eliminate such ventures.
Throughout she feeds us firsthand accounts of trolling for salmon, long-lining for halibut and cod, crabbing through unstable winter ice and summer’s recent rough seas -- sometimes idyllic, sometimes frightening, always compelling: she puts us there."
~Bill Keep, book reviewer
“The pioneers who founded the White Bluffs saturated the slopes with irrigation for their orchards - slopes that aren't set up for irrigation in Nature. Though the families were moved out in the 1940's for the nuclear operations, the slopes still fail on occasion.
...Orchards of Eden, where I got the above information, is a great read. It follows the lives of a pioneer family who moved there from - get this - Hoquiam. Talk about an about-face shock!” ~ NW Hikers
~Sidelong Films , producer of Arid Lands doc
~ Margaret Hamilton Wood, PhD, former resident of Columbia Basin towns
"Does for the small farmers of America what 'The Naked and the Dead' did for the foot soldiers of WWII."
~Thomas Coons, teacher of American history, retired
“Orchards of Eden is an engaging family history which goes far beyond the story of one family to illustrate an historical period and the economic system that many small farmers struggled with. The author began with a wealth of information saved in her grandparents' letters which she augmented through interviews. Her story has been further informed by narratives of other families from the area as well as research of historical resources. The results are both informative and interesting.
I found her description of the social structure of White Bluffs particularly fascinating. She used her grandmother and great-grandmother's experiences in that society as examples to illustrate the role of women in building social cohesion in rural America. Children played an essential role in the economic survival of farming families. I heartily recommend this book for people interested in history of the West or family stories.”
~ Carlyln Syvanen, (ret. English teacher, Sequim, WA)