Rural Alaska

Biden administration sues state of Alaska over Kuskokwim River salmon fisheries

Bethel, AK, Fish Camp, Roy and Ida Alexie, Salmon, Kuskokwim River

The Biden administration is suing the state of Alaska over fishing management authority on a Southwest Alaska river. The Kuskokwim River is critical for subsistence fishing, but its king and chum salmon stocks have collapsed.

Last year, the federal government allowed limited openers for rural Alaska subsistence fishermen, as required by federal law, on the section of the Kuskokwim that runs through the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the Biden administration’s complaint says. On those same days, the state authorized subsistence fishing opportunities that were open to all Alaskans.

The conflict is playing out again this year, with the federal government planning openings for three days in early June limited to rural subsistence users, and the state saying all Alaskans can fish on those same days.

The 25-page complaint was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage. It names the state of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang as defendants.

At the heart of the dispute is state law that allows subsistence opportunities for all Alaskans, and the federal government’s more limited view — based on the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act — that it applies only to federally qualified rural subsistence users.

The 1980 law that applies to federal lands in Alaska created the subsistence priority for rural Alaskans. But the Alaska Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that a preference based on where someone resides violated the state constitution. Under Alaska law, all residents qualify for subsistence harvests.

The conflicting rules have led to decades of conflict that continues today and differing wildlife management schemes, with some subsistence hunting managed by the federal government and some managed by the state.

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Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman with the Interior Department, said in an email Tuesday that predictions for returning king and chum salmon this summer are so low that the federal government must limit fishing again to rural subsistence users only for the 180-mile stretch of river in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

[Earlier coverage: State announces Kuskokwim River fishing opening that feds say isn’t legitimate, prompting confusion]

“The lawsuit is necessary to protect rural subsistence uses as provided in Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,” she said.

The state is reviewing the complaint, said Grace Lee, an assistant attorney general with the Alaska Department of Law, in an email.

Lee said the state stands by its management decisions that balance state constitutional requirements with scientific decision-making.

“These decisions are based on a foundation of sound science guided by a management plan and metrics vetted through the Alaska Board of Fisheries with input from the local stakeholder working group,” Lee said. “This ensures that there are adequate subsistence opportunities for Alaskans while adhering to the sustainability principle enshrined in the Alaska Constitution.”

[Gov. Dunleavy orders steps to assert Alaska’s water and land rights over feds — including a trespass notice]

Lee said it was unfortunate that the federal government is suing the state instead of trying to work with it to meet subsistence needs for all Alaskans.

The Biden administration’s complaint says federal officials have tried to collaborate with the state to coordinate management of the Kuskokwim in the refuge, but those efforts have failed.

“The state’s actions threaten the conservation of the (king) and chum salmon populations, usurp the rural priority, and reduce opportunities for those who are most dependent on the salmon resources of the Kuskokwim River for their physical, economic, traditional, and cultural existence – local rural residents,” the lawsuit says.

The 700-mile-long Kuskokwim River is dotted with Alaska Native villages and runs through one of the state’s most impoverished regions. It supports Alaska’s largest subsistence salmon fishery, based on harvest and participants.

But the king salmon run has been well below historical levels for several years, including last year. Returns of chum salmon, an important substitute for the protein-rich king salmon, crashed to record lows last year, the complaint says.

The management dispute on the Kuskokwim came after the state and federal government last year took different views on the number of returning king salmon that should be allowed to reach spawning grounds to support future runs, according to the complaint. The federal government took a more cautious view, the complaint says.

The dispute between the state and federal managers was highlighted on June 28, when the state held an opener for all Alaskans on a day when the federal government had authorized no opener for anyone, the complaint says.

[‘We’ve never seen this before’: Salmon collapse sends Alaskans on Lower Yukon scrambling for scarce alternatives]

The state announced that opportunity just one day after Anthony Christianson, the chair of the Federal Subsistence Board, which oversees the federal subsistence program, called on the state to improve its coordination with the federal government to improvement fishing management of the river, according to the complaint.

The federal government wants a ruling that federal law preempts the state’s actions. It also wants the court to halt state actions that encourage fish or wildlife harvests in conflict with federal law.

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The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, representing tribes along the Kuskokwim drainage, is pleased to see the federal government’s lawsuit, said Kevin Whitworth, interim executive director.

“We’re heartened to see the federal government standing up for the protection of salmon and the importance of federal management,” he said. The commission is considering ways it can support the federal government’s effort in the lawsuit, he said.

The group has called the declining fishing on the river a “catastrophic multi-species salmon decline not seen in living memory,” in its September report.

Jennifer Hooper, natural resources director for the Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal consortium in the region, said last year’s conflicting openers created confusion among subsistence fishermen.

She was worried it might lead to enforcement actions for fishermen who thought they could fish, but didn’t. She said she’d like to see the state coordinate with the federal government to improve fishery management to help protect the fishery.

“Salmon is a pretty critical component of not just our family’s food cache, but just having that experience and taking our children to learn what it means to be a subsistence fisher and to learn the cultural aspects of it are also important,” Hooper said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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