Akiak elders told families to fish despite government ban

From Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --

State and federal wildlife officials seized 21 nets and 1,100 pounds of salmon from Lower Kuskokwim River subsistence fishermen this week, enforcing a government ban on subsistence salmon fishing on the river.

Today, Akiak leaders say some of the fishermen were families who put their nets in the river as an act of civil disobedience encouraged by village elders. They're concern: A looming "food security emergency" brought about by the subsistence fishing ban.

"This enforcement practice toward our tribal citizens is totally inhumane as the Elders have stated," Akiak chief Ivan M. Ivan said in a written statement. "It is violating our basic human rights as first peoples of this land and first protectors of our resources."

King salmon are a key food source for cash-poor Yup'ik villages along the Lower Kuskokwim. Regulators placed a ban on subsistence fishing for kings, hoping to protect a weak, late run that is now making its way to spawning grounds upriver.

Read the full statement from the Akiak Native Community and Akiak IRA Council below.

What you need to know for context: The state originally planned to hold a rolling, seven-day subsistence fishing closure on the river, but extended that closure to 12 days when Bethel-based researched showed the weak run was expected to continue.

Akiak leaders say elders encouraged people to fish at the end of the original week-long closure.

The next decision to look for from Fish and Game will be whether to extend a three-day opening in subsistence fishing for sockeye and chum salmon on the river.

Emergency Subsistence Fishing Situation for Alaska's Yup'ik Peoples Continues

Traditional Alaska Native Fish Harvest Blocked By Government Agencies; Alaska Fish and Game and US Fish and Wildlife Service Confiscating Fishing Nets and Salmon caught; Native elders cite mismanagement and global warming as primary threat to fish population

Akiak - Facing arrest, fines, and seizure of foods and fishing nets by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and US Fish and Wildlife Troopers, Alaska Native people took to their boats this past Wednesday to stave off a food security emergency. Following orders of village elders, boats filled with men, women, and children fished along the Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska on the day an original seven-day river closure was to lift.

The conflict began after the Alaska Department of the Fish and Game and US Fish and Wildlife Service went against the nearly unanimous vote by the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, a working group organized by the agency, to immediately open the fishery after an initial agreed upon seven-day closure of the river. The commercial fisheries representative on the working group was the only non-supporting vote of the opener.

"Fish and Game issued citations and fishing nets were cut up, torn and taken away including the fish by enforcement officers," said Mike Williams, a member of the Akiak Native Community and the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group.

Elders and tribal leaders across Alaska called the government decision to extend the river closure by an additional five days a violation of trust and a threat to sovereign fishing rights.

Ivan M. Ivan, Chief of Akiak said that "this enforcement practice toward our tribal citizens is totally inhumane as the Elders have stated. It is violating our basic human rights as first peoples of this land and first protectors of our resources. The Tribal Council will work hard to protect our resources and our land as we have done for over 10,000 years. We have done this because there were many people from the river who stated that they did not have any fish yet hanging for drying on their racks. This is true from the mouth of the river to the headwaters of the Kuskokwim River."

"All of the Alaska Native Peoples must protect their way of life, lands and waters," he continued. "The Elders have directed their fishermen to fish without any fear of breaking laws. They said that putting up fish for their survival is not breaking the law. It is just common sense that they have been taught by the great teachers before others showed up."

Village elders and leadership are pointing to climate change, and lack of respect for thousands of years of management and tribal sovereignty as the leading factors for the face off. Villages from Tuluksak all the way down to Tuntutuliak are involved. The tribes in the area are going to continue to meet to address the restoration of the Chinook salmon for the future.

After a long cold winter, this harvest time is crucial for much needed dried fish and the villages need enough fish stored for the upcoming winter. The Kuskokwim River stretches From Bering Sea, 702 miles through Southwest Alaska to the headwaters of Mt. Denali. It is the ninth largest river in the United States and the longest free flowing river in the Country.