No one did more for the salmon in our region over the years than did Dr. John White, the local Bethel dentist and fishery advocate…or as some called him – an activist. In the words of Karen Gillis with the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, “I would say he was perhaps the most defining person in Western Alaska for many years, before I think maybe people even realized how formidable his mind was, and his actions.”
She also pointed out how, “He was so keenly instrumental in the creation of the policy for the Management of Sustainable Salmon Fisheries. That policy really is as strong and as powerful as it is because of Dr. White. There were others on the Board at the time but he really was a great ring leader there.”
When I moved to Bethel in 1998, Dr. White was the Chairman of the Board of Fish, a position he held for many years. He and a few other go-getters on the board were pushing the State to adopt the Sustainable Salmon Initiative, something that many in the Department of Fish & Game didn’t think was necessary. But Dr. White was a visionary; he knew that there were threats on the horizon no different than what has occurred in so many other places, and that a formal policy needed to be in place to protect the salmon.
I had recently come up from the lower 48, had experienced the loss of salmon throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, and had just purchased what I considered to be the fisheries biologist’s/manager’s bible – Sustainable Fisheries Management: Pacific Salmon.
I showed it to Dr. White and he immediately glommed on to it; as he often did, he immersed himself in it and other pertinent literature. He and I would discuss that fish management bible while he was working on my teeth…although he did most of the discussing and I could only listen since his fingers were in my mouth performing his dental “mojo” on me (the first time I heard that word was from John’s mouth while his fingers were in mine).
That book was fresh off the press, so he had read it before many of the Department’s staff…much to their chagrin. I know more than one manager who often wondered where he came up with some of his pronouncements; when I told one staff person that I’d loaned Dr. White the book, he exasperatedly told me not to do that again unless I provided him the information first! This manager hadn’t even heard of the book yet.
Now here’s what the policy states: “while, in the aggregate, Alaska’s salmon fisheries are healthy and sustainable largely because of abundant pristine habitat and the application of sound, precautionary, conservation management practices, there is a need for a comprehensive policy for the regulation and management of sustainable salmon fisheries,”
The Policy, approved in 2000, has the following goal: “ensure conservation of salmon and salmon’s required marine and aquatic habitats, protection of customary and traditional uses and other uses, and the sustained economic health of Alaska’s fishing communities.”
According to a 2006 ADF&G Alaska Fishery Research Bulletin*, it refers to the policy as a landmark document and states, “it directs ADF&G and the Alaska Board of Fisheries to follow a systematic process for evaluating the health of salmon stocks throughout the state by requiring ADF&G to provide the Board, in concert with its regulatory cycle, with reports on the status of salmon stocks and fisheries under consideration for regulatory changes.”
Now who could argue with such a “landmark” policy? Well, as already mentioned, there were actually a fair number of Department staff who didn’t think such a policy was necessary, and to this day cuss Dr. White for riding herd on such an endeavor. Consequently, there are some in the Department that to this day aren’t Dr. White’s biggest fans…but hey, he did it for the fishes, the fishery and the local fishers. I, for one, respect the man immensely for that, because he left such a powerful legacy for us all.
In some ways, I guess, you could say that it was like pulling teeth to get that landmark policy approved and into the regulations; fortunately for us, Dr. White skills went beyond dentistry.
* The Commercial Salmon Fishery in Alaska. 2006. John Clark, Andrew McGregor, Robert Mecum, Paul Krasnowski and Amy Carrol. Alaska Fishery Research Bulletin. Vol. 12 No. 1.
There will be a memorial service for Dr. White on Memorial Day, Monday the 27th at the Cultural Center in Bethel beginning at 4:00 PM.
The photos of John were taken by Doug Molyneaux – retired ADF&G Commercial Fisheries Biologist