State wildlife troopers are investigating reports of illegal subsistence fishing by villagers on the Yukon River to protest state catch restrictions on king salmon.
Six boats left the village of Marshall on Friday night -- a time when subsistence fishing was supposed to be closed -- and caught roughly 100 kings, said Nick P. Andrew Jr., one of the fishermen and director of the Marshall-based Ohogamiut Traditional Council.
Andrew said the state is neglecting the subsistence needs of the region and that the protesters gave their catch to local elders, widows and other villagers. The chinooks are a key source of food and cash along the Yukon, but Fish and Game predicted poor returns this year, banning commercial fishing altogether and sharply reducing subsistence opportunities.
Andrew said he hasn't heard from the authorities yet, but troopers said Tuesday that they're on the case.
"If in fact a protest fishery occurred, I am very disappointed," said Colonel Gary Folger, wildlife troopers director. "We will conduct an investigation and if it discloses criminal behavior occurred, we will present our findings to the district attorney's office for review."
The violation would be a misdemeanor. The state could also seize equipment.
The Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, supported the protest. "Other villages that need king salmon should do the same thing," AVCP President Myron Naneng said this week.
If the state is so worried about the king salmon run on the Yukon, it should have pushed for tougher restrictions on the Bering Sea pollock fleet that wastes thousands of king salmon a year, Naneng said.
Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd sits on the council that overseas the Bering Sea fishery and voted in April to put an unprecedented cap on the number of salmon the fleet can waste. Regional leaders say the new restrictions go too easy on the trawlers.
On Tuesday, Naneng called for Gov. Sarah Palin to replace Lloyd as Fish and Game commissioner, saying the state favors the giant Bering Sea pollock industry over the interests of village residents.
Calls to speak to Lloyd on Tuesday were returned by John Hilsinger, the Department's director of commercial fisheries.
He said he couldn't talk in detail about why the state didn't push for tighter restrictions on the pollock fleet because he wasn't involved in that discussion. But he noted the council's vote will put the first-ever cap on wasted salmon, one that would prevent massive bycatch like the 120,000 salmon that trawlers caught in 2007.
The new cap could take effect in 2011.
"I know some people on the Yukon wish it was more than that, but it is definitely a step in the right direction," Hilsinger said.
Camille Boliver, 73, is a retired fisherman who grew up in Marshall, a village of about 400.
"Ever since I was young I had enough king salmons to feed my family all winter long," he said. But this year, most of the kings have already passed by the village and he only has three in his freezer. The protesting fishermen gave them to him, he said.
Steve Hayes, who manages the Yukon chinook run for Fish and Game, said he sympathizes with fishermen concerned about bycatch but denounced the Marshall protest.
"Not only are they jeopardizing the future returns, but it's unfair to the other people around them who are actually following the rules," he said.
Talk of civil disobedience over the king salmon fishery had been simmering for weeks among regional leaders. The fishermen left the village Friday night carrying copies of a resolution by the local traditional council supporting the protest, Andrew said.
"We were ready to send a message to the fishery managers, to the governor and to big business -- meaning the trawl fishery. That you waste, you know, you're allowed to waste all this fish. We only take a small fraction of the runs," he said.
'I'VE NEVER SAID THAT'
Palin couldn't be reached for an interview Tuesday. But she wrote short updates on the region, and her rural advisor's trip to the Lower Yukon village of Emmonak, last week among her many dispatches on Twitter.
"Good update re Rural Advisor John Moller's recnt Emmonak trip, great news he reports; we'll twitter assuming press won't pick up good news," Palin wrote on Friday.
Eight minutes later, she added another tweet: "John also met w/CNN reporter while in Emmonak & shared welcomed GOOD NEWS of region...as a result, highly unlikely interview will air:)"
So what was this good news?
"At the Federal Subsistence meeting in Emmonak last week, Nick Tucker reported that 50 percent of the residents have met subsistence needs and other 50 percent are confident they will meet their needs," Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.
But Tucker, an Emmonak resident who became a spokesman for the cash-poor region when his letter describing a local fuel and food crisis made national headlines, said Tuesday he never said that.
He demanded a public apology from Palin's team for saying he did.
"Ten times over, I've never said that. It was from one fisherman in Alakanuk," Tucker said in a short phone interview. "I do not believe that we in Emmonak -- Emmonak never said that."
The governor's response? Moller, the rural advisor, is the one who knows about that, Leighow e-mailed. But he's on personal leave.
"He is fishing today out of cell range," Leighow wrote. "John also said he talked with numerous residents who reported they have taken enough king salmon for their subsistence needs or would by the end of the season."
WHAT ABOUT CHUM?
Under a 2001 agreement between the U.S. and Canada, Alaska must deliver 45,000 king salmon up the Yukon and into Canada this year.
For the past two years, the state has fallen short of those treaty goals and it's too early to tell if that will change this summer, said Hayes, the summer area manager.
To try and make it happen, Fish and Game closed the river to commercial king fishing and cut subsistence fishing in half. The first pulse of salmon is particularly important, with roughly 60 percent of those fish headed to Canada, Hayes said.
The department also is closing subsistence fishing altogether in sections of the river as that first group of salmon pass through and is temporarily restricting gillnet sizes in some areas.
The state opened the lower Yukon to short windows of commercial chum fishing on Monday, but the Board of Fisheries voted Monday night that any kings that chum fishermen catch by accident can't be sold for profit, Hayes said.
Asked why fishermen can't replace kings with more abundant chum salmon as a subsistence food, Andrew said it's not that simple.
"Nothing compares to king salmon nutritionally because they carry oil that's needed for calories and for our well being. ... We can't substitute any species for that. That's our customary and traditional food," he said.
By KYLE HOPKINS