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Desperate Alaska salmon shortage leads to culture clash

Jill Burke
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries

This is not a new story. Elderly Alaska Native fisherman seeks food for family, finds himself at odds with laws made by outsiders to his home region in a state younger than he is. Some will say it’s a culture clash, the "old way" of living off the land grinding against the "new way," where modern state and federal government rules may conflict with survival.

When fish are at the heart of the conflict, the problem becomes more complex the scarcer they become. And in two of Alaska’s top salmon fisheries, king salmon, in particular, have been mighty scarce.

In the Kuskokwim drainage, subsistence salmon fishing was closed in the early summer. Now smaller-mesh nets are allowed in an effort to conserve kings while red and chum salmon are harvested.

On the Yukon River, king fishing has been largely shuttered all summer. Last year, about 170,000 kings went up the Yukon, with about 70,000 reaching Canada to spawn and 50,000 going to subsistence fishermen along the river. This year with most of the run already past Pilot Station, 120 miles upriver, just 105,000 have passed through Thursday. State and federal fisheries managers have imposed severe restrictions on subsistence fishermen in Alaska in an attempt to get enough fish to spawing grounds in Canada and Alaska.

Yukon fisherman normally catch about 50,000 kings and weak run has also prevented most fishermen from tapping into a strong chum salmon run of 1.9 million fish, about 50 percent higher than normal for this time of year.

'Frantic search for food'

With the situation so bad this summer, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell sought a disaster declaration and on Friday he reached out to state and federal scientists in hopes of figuring out why fish runs are failing and how to respond.

At the same time, villagers on Alaska rivers have staged "fish ins" -- defying closures, risking fines and having their nets destroyed by law enforcement officers.

At the center of the conflict is a person's right to survive versus the government’s mandate to manage resources for future generations and meet treaty obligations with Canada, where some Yukon River salmon are ultimately destined. Once again, Native leaders are worried people will have to choose between heating their homes or buying food, the "heat-or-eat" dilemma that has plagued many of Alaska's rural communities for years.

"This was clearly not a political exercise. This was a frantic search for food," said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which serves the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, some of the poorest communities in the state. Naneng made the observation in a letter sent to Parnell, urging clemency for 41 people busted during recent enforcement efforts in which nets and fish were seized while citations were issued. 

During a press conference Friday, Parnell said he would not intervene, saying he’d never meddled with the Department of Law's discretion about who to prosecute, and he wasn’t about to start. He added that clemency only applies if there are convictions, and trials for the cited fisherman won’t begin for months.

'We cannot get it wrong'

Nevertheless, he said he recognized the crisis for commercial and subsistence fisherman. "We care about our people. This resource is so closely connected to our people that we cannot get it wrong," he said.

Parnell, accompanied by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, announced the creation of a multi-agency task forced aimed at bringing the best scientific minds from state and federal agencies to the table. By fall, Parnell wants a list of recommendations. Based on what’s proposed, money will be made available for more studies to fill knowledge gaps about a salmon's life from egg to death, from smolt stage to spawning, from river life to life at sea. But Campbell warned, the fix won't come quickly -- if there is one.

"We don't expect a dramatic rebound,” she said.  “It is a real hardship for Alaskans."

While the scientists pick apart what's known and not known, the human suffering is about to put the fairness of Alaska’s management framework to the test.

Chinook, the highly-sought-after large and fat-rich fish also known as kings, are causing all of the grief. Returns have dropped in recent years statewide, and conservation measures sometimes prevent fishing for other salmon that are more abundant. Runs of the various species overlap as the salmon swim upriver to spawn. Other species are in the river the same time the kings move through, and fishermen can be shut down entirely until the kings pass.

"We are not just going to stand by and just watch," Chief Ivan Ivan of Akiak said Friday. "These elders were doing nothing wrong to provide food for their families for this harsh cold winter. How would you feel if you were shut out from your grocery store and told you can't shop in your area for food?"

Tough on elders

Ivan and Naneng both describe scenarios involving elder Yupik fisherman. Many of them speak little English and spend a lot of time in remote camps, where cell phone service is limited and communication can be difficult. Ivan worried the men may not have learned of the last-minute closures before taking to the river, and that a real language barrier exists. He also worried that some elders, typically conservative law-abiding men, may have already pleaded guilty, not fully understanding the initial court proceedings.

Not all of the illegal fishing was accidental. In Ivan's home village of Akiak, elders told people to get in their boats and fish, declaring that they would not be in violation of the law because God provides for them. In Ivan's opinion, the elders were doing nothing more than exercising their opinion and religious beliefs, and honoring the cultural tradition of harvesting now for the months ahead. He questioned laws that don’t recognize local needs or knowledge, and that won’t allow individual communities to do what’s best for themselves.

Women and children were also a part of the "fish ins" -- doing what they could to help with the fishing while trying to prevent Alaska State Troopers and officers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from ticketing their men.

Life in small villages that dot the state can feel lonely at times, Ivan said, asking "Where do we turn? Who do we turn to?"

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com