Davin Holen: Social scientist uses knowledge of subsistence fisheries to help communities adapt to changing environments

Holen, in Sitka harbor, assisting the Sitka Tribe of Alaska to weigh herring roe on branches.

At 17, Davin Holen left his home in the woods outside of Wasilla, Alaska, to travel the world. He lived and studied in South America and Europe for several years before joining the Peace Corps, where he ended up in Mali, West Africa, living in a small mud hut on the edge of the Sierra Desert with his wife, Cara.

“No running water, no electricity. It was like camping in the desert for two and a half years,” Holen says.

Holen’s experience in Africa sparked a curiosity about human culture that has turned into his life’s work.

“I was really interested in people’s interactions with the environment, especially in a subsistence economy.”

He realized that even though he grew up in Alaska, he did not know much about the cultures in his home state. He returned from Africa and enrolled in the Master’s program at the University of Alaska Anchorage in Applied Cultural Anthropology. The department was brand new, and Holen was its first graduate.

After earning his degree, he went to work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Subsistence, working his way up from an internship to program manager over 15 years. Holen assessed subsistence harvests all over the state, from Southeast Alaska to the Arctic. He tried to understand and document these fisheries, in order to anticipate problems that could arise, so he could find ways to address upcoming expected needs.

“We did a lot of work looking at the subsistence hunt in the Copper River basin. That’s an interesting case. In some areas, there is high pressure from urban hunters in Alaska traveling into the area, the resident Ahtna population, and others who rely on the area for subsistence,” said Holen. “So you have this intersection of thousands of people desiring to hunt the same resources. How do you ensure that all of those people get what they need, or have the same opportunity? We had to find a balance to ensure that everybody has opportunities to hunt, maybe not successfully, but the opportunity to participate.”

His work at Fish and Game led to a dissertation on how fisheries help build culture and community in rural Alaska, which he recently finished. He will graduate with a Ph.D. in anthropology this May.

Holen was curious about the struggles people were having making a living in certain fisheries.

“I had done a lot of harvest assessments in places like Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet and I knew from those assessments that people were not making a good living, they weren’t even breaking even in many cases.”

Holen wanted to understand and document why people stay in those rural communities, even though they may be barely making it economically.

“One person said, ‘if I don’t fish every year, I feel like there’s a part of me that’s missing, something wrong’.”

“The interaction between people as they are working together and passing those traditions on to their kids is really important for a lot of people.”

The work will help outsiders understand how to evaluate potential vulnerability to disaster and resilience in those communities.

Helping communities plan for approaching climate change

Holen left Fish and Game in 2015, to spend more time with his family. He ended up at Alaska Sea Grant.

“This is the greatest job ever,” Holen says. “I get to work with communities. I feel like I have taken a lot of information from communities, constantly asking them for things. I feel like now I can give back.”

Projects that Holen thought were important, but that he could not do at Fish and Game, are now possible.
His biggest focus is helping communities create plans to deal with climate change. He talks to Alaskans about the impacts from the changing climate, and helps develop adaptation and mitigation strategies to deal with possible changes.

Development of a regional plan for parts of Southeast Alaska is the farthest along. A two-day planning session consisted of representatives from 17 Alaska Native tribes; experts doing the latest science on different resources such as berries, salmon, shellfish, yellow cedar, or cultural sites; and nonprofits doing monitoring studies. Participants in the session started putting together a plan. Holen is consulting with the Tlingit/Haida Environmental Council, advising as they write the climate adaptation plan.

The project is funded in part by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. Holen is working collaboratively with them to develop regional plans based on the Southeast Alaska plan, which can be tailored to individual communities’ needs for the rest of Alaska.

“The outcome of all of this is we are building a central repository online of a new website called ‘Adapt Alaska.’ It will bring together all of the adaptation and resilience work that’s going on in the state,” said Holen. The site will have interactive portals that tell stories about what people are working on, and then provide access to tools for various issues.

“We just want to be able to provide materials for people to build better well-being in their communities.”

New project will evaluate post-spill recovery of subsistence harvests

The Scientific Advisory Committee is planning a new project for the upcoming fiscal year that will make use of Holen’s previous work. This project will examine the socio-economic effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the communities of Chenega Bay, Cordova, Nanwalek, Port Graham, and Tatitlek, particularly the effects on subsistence fishing. The project will use data Holen helped gather while he was working for Alaska Fish and Game. The project’s results could identify subsistence areas that are especially vulnerable to an oil spill, for instance.

“If there’s an area that’s really important for shellfish or salmon runs for example, we are trying to understand what impacts may be happening to that area.”

As Holen was doing research in Cordova in spring of 2015, he listened to stories of those who had been around to see the spill first-hand.

“People were talking to me about how the spill actually changed the economy of places like Cordova, and how those communities really changed socially and culturally in some ways.”

“I was a senior in high school when the spill happened, and the next five or ten years was really just about cleaning up from the spill,” Holen said. “There was a lot of money that came into the area, and some people either stopped fishing or became really reliant on some of the money that was being brought in for new, different types of jobs.”

“There was a loss of transmission of knowledge between the generations that occurred at that period of time,” Holen added. “The communities are probably different places today than they would have been if the spill hadn’t happened.”

Davin Holen is a member of the council’s Scientific Advisory Committee. The committee supports the council’s mission by sponsoring independent scientific research and providing scientific assistance and advice to the other council committees on technical reports, scientific methodology, data interpretation, and position papers. This committee is one of five committees of volunteers from communities affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Volunteers like Holen dedicate their time and expertise to advise the council on technical issues related to the safe transportation of oil through Prince William Sound.

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