This story originally appeared on KYUK and is republished here with permission.
A federal court ruled that the State of Alaska cannot issue gillnet openers for all Alaskans in the federal areas of the Kuskokwim River, at least for now. That will be the job of the federal government.
A local tribal group requested the order favoring federal management following disagreements between state and federal managers. The court order follows years of low chinook and chum salmon runs on the Kuskokwim River and in the broader region.
A U.S. District court ruled June 23 to temporarily bar the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from announcing conflicting salmon openers on the Kuskokwim River’s federal waters. The state’s openers allow all Alaskans to fish the Kuskokwim, but the feds only allow fishing by qualified subsistence users. The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission requested the order against Fish and Game. The fish commission said that the state’s openers violate the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
ANILCA gives preference to rural subsistence users to fish, and fishing has been difficult for subsistence users. That’s because chinook numbers on the river have been on a downward trend for years, and chum numbers are starting to crash too. Kwethluk-born, Bethel-based Harry Alexie said that the absence of fish is deeply felt.
“I grew up with abundance of fish. If we did one set, we filled up a boat in my younger years. And that’s not common today. I’m feeling for my two kids, for their generation in which they were not able to experience what we experienced,” said Alexie.
Alexie said that he likes the federal government’s conservation-based approach. He also likes that the feds co-manage the river with Tribes, whereas the state does not.
“In my opinion, the state should be consulting with tribes also. Get the numbers and expertise from the people who are living on the land,” said Alexie.
The temporary order against Fish and Game is part of an ongoing lawsuit the federal government filed against the state of Alaska over the same issue. The order will expire when the lawsuit is resolved. The lawsuit and temporary order are the result of a conflict that heated up when the state announced openings against the wishes of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in 2021.
At first, the state only announced openings on the same days that the feds announced openings. The only difference between the openers was that the state allowed all Alaskans to fish. The conflict came to a head in 2021 when the state announced an opening on a day that the feds had closed the river. The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said in its oral arguments that it created confusion on the river. And the court agreed in issuing its decision. The judge who wrote the decision quoted the fish commission’s oral arguments, saying that it doesn’t matter how many fish are harvested by non-federally qualified users.
“You can’t give a fish back to the federally qualified user that was taken by a non-federally qualified user. We’re not going to somehow be able to compensate the members of the federally recognized Tribes along this portion of the Kuskokwim River,” said attorneys for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Attorneys representing Fish and Game argue that opening the river to all Alaskans allows people who have moved away from the region to come back and fish. And Warren Nicholai from Napaskiak agrees that should be allowed.
“Most of those folks that are wanting to come in are those types of people that wants to better holding on to their ancestral practice,” said Nicholai.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit said that they would not comment on pending litigation. The defendants did not respond to comments by deadline.