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Salmon closures, protests highlight Alaska food insecurity

Timothy Aqukkasuk Argetsinger
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries

“We’ve got a situation where Inuit people are protesting in the streets in communities across the territory — it’s something that I don’t think anybody has ever seen.” 

-- Carolyn Bennett, Liberal MP for Toronto (St. Paul)

In the past two months, the issue of food security in Alaskan and Canadian Indigenous communities has received a flurry of press attention. This attention is largely due to three events:

I would like to comment on the closure of the Kuskokwim king salmon fishery this June, and tie this event to the Inuit food movement in Nunavut, Canada, as well as to international human rights.

Protests abound

There is currently a growing and unprecedented movement against the astronomically high cost of store-bought foods in Inuit communities across Nunavut, the majority Inuit territory carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999. Using a Facebook group called “Feeding My Family” to compare pictures of store-bought food prices and to organize, hundreds of Inuit have joined in peaceful protests in at least six Nunavut communities in June and July. Protesters are demanding reduced store-bought food prices at a time when 70 percent of Nunavaut households are moderately or severely food insecure, with food security existing “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

These protests have targeted the North West Co., the Canadian corporation monopolizing supermarkets in Canadian Inuit communities. The North West Co. owns and operates 33 Alaska Commercial Co. stores across rural Alaska, where prices are just as high as those found in Nunavut. At the AC in Kotzebue last month: $10 for 2 liters of milk, $7 for a loaf of bread, $7 for a bag of spinach, $15 for a 10-pound bag of potatoes.

Just like many Alaska Native communities, Inuit in Nunavut have largely been failed by colonial schooling models, and are consequently experiencing the effects of widespread poverty. Store-bought food costs are at least double if not triple or quadruple those found in Canadian cities, and climate change and rising fuel prices can make nutritionally superior traditional foods inaccessible to many.

In Alaska, the state and federal government have jurisdiction over the traditional subsistence activities of Alaska Native peoples. The state and federal government, rather than tribes or other Alaska Native bodies, have the power to set and enforce harvest quotas on fish and game, or close the harvest altogether if fish and game species counts are determined to be unsustainable by these management regimes.

Last month, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game unrolled staggered closures of the Kuskokwim River king salmon fishery due to record low runs. This closure essentially criminalized king salmon fishing until the end of the closure. The reasons behind this season’s low runs remain unclear, but some blame the over-allocation of harvest quotas to the commercial fishing industry in prior years.

Nearly 17,500 people live in the Bethel Census Area through which the Kuskokwim winds, 81 percent of whom are Yup’ik. Reliance on traditional foods in the region, particularly fish, is great. Yupiit harvested more than 200,000 salmon for subsistence in 2004 and more than 187,000 in 2007. 18.6 percent of the Bethel Census Area lives below the poverty line, and the median household income is more than $14,000 less than the statewide median income ($66,000). Just like in Nunavut, poverty and the high cost of store-bought foods elevate the importance of traditional food harvests for many families and communities, on top of the immeasurable spiritual and cultural fulfillment that harvesting and consuming these foods brings.

As of June 22, more than 30 nets and 1,000 pounds of fish had been seized by Alaska State Troopers; yet in a surreal turn of events, Governor Sean Parnell wrote a July 14 letter seeking a disaster declaration for the area from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, predicting a food shortage in the region undoubtedly made much worse by state seizure of fish and nets, and the criminalization of those trying to feed their families.

In seeking such a band-aid solution, Parnell is ignoring the systemic issue of food insecurity in this and other regions in rural Alaska, and the broader implications food insecurity has for the human rights of Yupiit and other Alaska Native peoples.

With the exception of marine mammals, Alaska Natives lack exclusive or even preferential access to traditional foods, sharing the same rights to fish and game as non-Native residents. Like our Canadian cousins, Alaska Natives have managed fish and game for millennia, and this management constituted a vital part of our nutritional, spiritual, and cultural existence. In fact, a recent study credits the sustainable hunting and fishing practices of the Aleutian Islands Unangax for stabilizing the Pacific marine ecosystem for millennia.

Human right

As a result of the U.S. colonization of Alaska and the transfer of Native inhabited lands to state and federal jurisdiction following the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), Indigenous self-regulation and management of traditional food harvests have since been usurped. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now regulate hunting and fishing on state and federal-owned lands in Alaska, including lands owned by the Alaska Native corporations established by ANCSA.

The right to food is a human right recognized by Article 22 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is a right that “requires States to provide an enabling environment in which people can use their full potential to produce or procure adequate food for themselves and their families.”

The right to food is not a right to a minimum ration of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients, or a right to be fed, but is “about being guaranteed the right to feed oneself, which requires not only that food is available ... but also that it is accessible – i.e., that each household either has the means to produce or buy its own food.” With regard to Indigenous peoples specifically, Article 20 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.

2. Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress.

Alaska lacks data

Unlike Nunavut, data do not exist that give a clear picture of the food security status of Yupiit and other Native peoples living in rural Alaska, where the high cost of living, the failure of Western colonial schooling models, and limited employment opportunities too often combine to create a perfect storm for poverty, overcrowded housing, and food insecure households. The state closure of the king salmon run undermines Yupiit access to food along the Kuskokwim in a region where reliance on expensive, nutritionally inferior store-bought foods is not an option for many.

The Kuskokwim king salmon closure and the severe stress it places on the food security of Yupiit households contravenes the internationally recognized human rights of Yupiit to access foods that are “personally acceptable and culturally appropriate” and “obtained in a manner that maintains human dignity.” The action consequently denies Yupiit and other Native peoples access to the same standard of living as other Alaskans and Americans. A disaster declaration is not a long-term solution to this issue, and ignores the deeper, more complex issue of food security and human rights.

Using the language of human rights, Yupiit and other Alaska Native peoples and advocacy organizations can use the Kuskokwim closure to strengthen the decades-long struggle for Alaska Native self-management of traditional food harvests. This event can also be used to advocate for a permanent, rural Alaska food subsidies program similar in intent to national models that exist (to varying success) in Northern Canada.

Finally, we can follow the lead of Inuit in Nunavut and use the Kuskokwim closure to call attention to systemic influences on food insecurity in rural Native communities. Such attention paid at a time of threatened food supplies will no doubt lead to questions about the astronomically high cost of commercial foods sold in stores owned by the multi-billion-dollar North West Co.

Tim Aqukkasuk Argetsinger is an education consultant from Anchorage. His parents are from Deering and Juneau.

A version of the preceding commentary was first published at the blog Alaska Indigenous and is republished here with the author's permission.

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