Kuskokwim fishing trials, subsistence loom large at AFN convention

khopkins@adn.comOctober 17, 2012 

Max Olick knew the Alaska State Trooper who wrote him a ticket and took his 55-foot driftnet.

As a Village Public Safety Officer, Olick helps troopers keep the peace in his hometown of Kwethluk in Southwest Alaska. But when other fishermen in the Lower Kuskokwim River village planned to fish for king salmon despite a state ban, Olick said he joined his neighbors in protest.

"I risked my job going out (for) something that I believe. The right to be out there and gather food for my family," Olick said in a phone interview Thursday from Kwethluk.

Here in Anchorage, 340 miles away, the fight over Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights is about to return to center stage at the state's largest annual gathering of Alaska Natives. Expect subsistence -- the battle over who gets first crack at hunting and fishing on state and federal lands -- to be the central issue of the 2012 convention, said Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka.

Chants of "Hunt! Fish! Share!" spilled across the Delaney Park Strip on Wednesday afternoon as a crowd of up to 400 people gathered for a protest rally demanding a larger role for Alaska Natives in hunting and fishing management. Many in the group said the Bethel trials of Olick and more than 20 others who refused to plead guilty to illegal king salmon fishing on the Kuskokwim prove the need for widespread reform.

"Alaska Natives continue to be criminalized for hunting and fishing and feeding their families and communities," said Carrie Stevens, a policy analyst for the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments who helped organize the rally.

Volunteers handed out protest signs: "Amend the Constitution for an Alaska Native Priority!" and "My Grandma's not a criminal!" A petition circulated demanding "traditional hunting and fishing rights on ALL Alaska lands and waters."

Planning for the rally began weeks ago, Stevens said. Willie Hensley, a Native land-rights pioneer and former state legislator, and former Alaska Inter-Tribal Council chairman Mike Williams stood in the crowd. The Copper River region Native corporation, Ahtna, brought signs for people to wave.

The decades-old debate over hunting and fishing rights often pits rural Alaskans and Alaska Natives against sport groups and urban hunters and anglers. Villagers say they hunt and fish to survive. Others argue everyone should have equal access to fish and game.

Caught in the center are government regulators tasked with preserving enough fish and animals for the future.

In contrast to the state Constitution, a 1980 federal law guarantees rural Alaskans priority over others when it comes to subsistence. Many Alaska Native leaders say the feds haven't done enough to protect that right and failed to make meaningful changes to subsistence oversight despite a sweeping review.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told AFN delegates in 2009 that the existing subsistence program was "broken." But a list of recommended improvements to the program introduced by the Interior and Agriculture departments fell far short of the broader changes sought by AFN.

AFN leaders have sought an act of Congress to overhaul the system. At past conventions, Native leaders called for the federal government, rather than the state, to oversee subsistence hunting and fishing rules on 45.5 million acres of Native-owned lands.

Tension over hunting and fishing rules spiked again in June. Bethel-based research revealed a weak, late run for king salmon on the Kuskokwim, according to the state. As a result, regulators banned subsistence fishing for kings, angering and frustrating village fishermen who favor the salmon as a winter food source. Some fished anyway.

State and federal wildlife officials responded by seizing 21 nets and 1,100 pounds of salmon, troopers reported at the time.

A YouTube recording of authorities cutting the net of a Kuskokwim River fisherman as onlookers shouted for them to stop became a rallying cry for villagers unhappy with the king salmon closures.

"I completely understand people's frustrations about the ability to fish and not being able to fish. It was tough deal all around the state this year," said Bob Clark, the state's chief sport fish scientist.

Trials for 22 Kuskokwim River fishermen accused of violating the closure will likely begin Oct. 29, said Jim Davis, a founder of the Anchorage-based Northern Justice Project.

One elder called the fishermen the Katie Johns of the Kuskokwim, he said, a reference to the Mentasta Lake elder whose landmark case resulted in the court-ordered federal takeover of subsistence hunting and fishing management across much of the state.

While some fishermen have already accepted plea deals, the remaining villagers agreed to fight the charges, Davis said. Most face a violation and fine, rather than a criminal misdemeanor, he said.

"They think pleading guilty will give the signal that they're allowing their right to subsistence to be taken away," said Davis, who said the massive pollock fleet ought to be asked to further reduce king salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea before subsistence fishermen are told kings are off limits on the river.

Olick, the Kwethluk VPSO, said he's not worried about paying a fine. But if he's found guilty, he might not get his family driftnet back.

"We're trying to feed our family," he said. "Am I guilty of that? Trying to put food on my table? Am I guilty?"

Lydia Winters, 57, first saw the YouTube video of troopers seizing king salmon on her Facebook feed. That's how she heard about the Wednesday rally too.

Originally from Nunivak Island, Winters is a grandmother of five and now lives in Anchorage, she said. As protesters danced on stage at the Park Strip, she sat on a nearby sidewalk holding a protest sign: "Alaska Native Food Security." Rush-hour SUVs crawled past on L Street.

Winters said the current fish and game management system bullies people, making them afraid to live off the land. "We're just asking to have freaking food," she said.

The AFN convention begins 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center and continues through Saturday.


Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.


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