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King salmon closures hurt, but we violate them at our own peril

Mark Richards
OPINION: Although I defend people's access to traditional foods for religious and subsistence reasons, I cannot defend intentionally violating fishing restrictions and closures on salmon runs that are clearly in trouble. flickr / echoforsberg

For the past 30-plus years my wife and I -- both non-Native -- have lived a subsistence lifestyle in the remote bush of the Upper Yukon country, over 100 river miles from the nearest village. We raised our three children out here on moose, caribou, black bear, hare, grouse, salmon, beaver, grayling and whitefish, alongside several generations of beloved sled dogs, clothed in winter garb taken and made from the trapline. Much of the knowledge that allowed us to make a life in the sub-Arctic wilderness was derived from the Han and Gwich’in Athabascans in the villages -- Eagle, Circle, Fort Yukon -- we came to know and respect over the years, some of whom have told us that we “live more Native” than they now do.

So much has changed in the last thirty years. I remember when Eagle had but one phone for the entire town and village and a once-a-week mail plane. I remember seeing the first “snowgo” out on the Yukon between Eagle and Circle, watched as the ubiquitous dog teams used by Natives and non-Natives alike for travel, freighting, and trapping were slowly replaced by the iron dog. I watched as the Native culture, after implementation of ANCSA and ANILCA, was challenged on Native subsistence issues and practices in various court cases, and witnessed first-hand what “social engineering” really was.

I defended -- and still do -- the practice of taking moose for potlatch ceremonies, and well understood that it was indeed a religious issue for the Native peoples. I defended -- and still do -- the rural subsistence priority ANILCA mandated.

But this current (and real) issue of declining salmon runs and some within the Native community choosing not to abide by salmon fishing restrictions and closures imposed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is not something I can defend.

Many of our king salmon stocks are in trouble. It is foolish for anyone, Native or non-Native, to deny this. We can try to pinpoint blame as to why so many king salmon runs have declined, point to the commercial open-ocean pollock fleet bycatch of kings (now greatly diminished), climate change, ocean conditions, and/or various other real or imagined causes. Fisheries biologists simply don’t have all the answers. But that doesn’t change the fact that when and where king salmon stocks are in trouble, every single king killed inriver is additive mortality that means fewer spawners and less recruitment for future runs.

It is naïve to think, “Hey, I am only catching fifty kings, that doesn’t have any influence,” when there are many others also catching fifty or more kings. Together, we all have an impact.

If I have learned anything in my time in the Bush, it is that if I want to continue to depend on any resource, I have to practice sound conservation practices. For example, I only take two beavers out of any one house each year, so that I can continue to come back and depend on that harvest. I have abided by the king salmon fishing restrictions and closures imposed in recent years in the Upper Yukon region, including going to a smaller mesh net size, because I know darn well those stocks are in trouble.

During the king salmon fishing closures, I’d be out on the river in the latter part of July every day, checking the grayling and whitefish net, and often I’d see flashes of red swim by. Spiritually, that put a smile on my face and made me happy, knowing that I was doing what I could to ensure more spawners made it upstream.

How did we compensate by not putting up the king salmon we were accustomed to? We did what Native peoples all along have always done when one fish or game population was in decline. We switched focus to other, more abundant, fish and game resources. We put up more grayling and whitefish. I trapped more beaver in winter under the ice from houses I didn’t normally trap. And even though we are more than 100 river miles from the nearest faraway village store, and the cost of getting things like flour and rice and other food staples out here -- to what friends label “the middle of the middle of nowhere” -- is prohibitively expensive, the lack of king salmon has not in any way put us closer to starvation.

With all due and deepest respect to the contingent of Native peoples who are arguing that king salmon fishing is a “right” under “religious” grounds, or that it is their cultural duty if (any) king salmon are in the river to accept such an offering by trying to catch them, I would only ask, at what point does real and necessary conservation of any fish or wildlife species trump a religious right or cultural duty? And this talk about the importance of culture and subsistence ... that I completely understand and agree with ... why does it seem to only be focused in the here and now? Why does there seem to be no real concern for the future? In order to carry on the subsistence way of life that so defines Native culture, there has to be enough fish in the rivers down the line.

What this year’s king salmon runs will be like, we don’t yet know. Certainly for the Yukon the prognosis is bleak. The Kuskokwim could very well see stronger runs. But if Fish and Game biologists and managers deem restrictions and closures are necessary on either river system, I encourage all subsistence fishermen and -women, Native and non-Native, to abide by the closures for now in order that we can all continue our subsistence way of life in the years to come.

The bottom line is that “subsistence” and “conservation,” “religion” and “conservation,” and “culture” and “conservation,” must all be recognized as two sides of the same coin. Customary and traditional practices can’t continue if we all don’t take part in necessary conservation measures. The resource -- the fish -- must come first, no matter how much it hurts, spiritually or in terms of having enough (or in our case, any) king salmon to eat through the winter.

That’s the real lesson I wish I saw coming out of all this.

Mark Richards and his wife, Lori, continue to live a subsistence lifestyle on the Kandik River in the Upper Yukon country.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.