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Networking: Merrick Burden

Executive director, Marine Conservation Alliance Seattle and Juneau, Alaska

By James Wright
September 05, 2011

Merrick Burden is like a fish in water. He might not have been a great fisherman — as he tells it, he was terrible — but he’s got boatloads of passion for Alaska, the oceans and the science that drives responsible fishery management. Only 34 years old, Burden is the new executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance (MCA), a coalition of seafood processors, harvesters, support industries, coastal communities and community-development groups with a stake in Alaska fisheries. With a master’s degree in environmental economics from Oregon State University and experience working for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and Environmental Defense Fund, he should fit right in.

Burden has been involved in fishing most of his life. His dad skippered a vessel in Alaska that targeted salmon and halibut in Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound, and Burden crewed the boat through high school. The “desk job” he says he’s more suited to allows him more time to be with his wife, Tamara, and their 9-month-old daughter, Adelaide.

WRIGHT: Why do you say you failed as a fisherman? 

BURDEN: I was too young to really understand what it takes to be a fisherman in a fishery that takes a lot of conscious and deliberate thought. It’s too easy as a young man to just go charging out there. Time can be better served sitting with your net out there and waiting. Tugging your net the hardest isn’t always the best way to get fish.

Do you miss fishing? 

I do miss it. Some of my best memories are from that time as a captain and deckhand. Whenever the winter goes away I get the urge to mend nets and crawl into an engine room.

What issues are facing MCA members? 

There are a few things that are very near and dear to the hearts of MCA members. Stellar sea lions are still a big deal; there are significant questions about the science that was used and interpreted to make regulations to protect sea lions. We are trying to make sure the scientific review process is open and transparent and takes into account all the relevant factors. It can be done a lot better.

What do the first months on the job hold in store for you? 

Understanding the people that I’m working with. It’s coming around, it’s happening. It’s taking some time. In any industry, especially seafood, groups have spent decades fighting each other but they eventually discover they have common ground. Part of my job is to keep people focused on that place. It can be interesting.

Alaska’s fisheries are considered the world’s best managed. Why? 

There’s a culture in Alaska fisheries that goes back to the start of the fishery development with salmon. Before Alaska became a state, you had an abundant salmon fishery whittled down because of mismanagement. And the people pursued statehood in part to preserve those resources. The people who relied on the stocks were motivated to bring the salmon back to health and that has carried through. The culture carries through the state’s fisheries and the management councils down into the industry based in Seattle. It was a powerful moment in history.

How much is known about the Arctic Ocean and its seafood potential? 

There’s not much known and it’s changing as the ice ways open up. We’ve supported a “time out” until we know more. There are subsistence uses that are important and those should be allowed to continue. Any commercial exploitation should raise a flag. It’s a big unknown. If we do it wrong, it could take a long time to recover.

September 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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