NAPASKIAK — Before the ice even went out on the Kuskokwim River this year, a tribal council had petitioned the federal government to close the river to king salmon fishing -- except for subsistence users. Napaskiak's tribe wanted to protect a plummeting run while allowing village residents to harvest at least some of the kings, prized for their high oil content.
On Monday, the Napaskiak Tribal Council told Federal Subsistence Board members that it didn't get the result it hoped for.
While the federal board agreed to take over the Kuskokwim king run, which usually is overseen by the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager in charge of decision-making ruled it was necessary to shut out most subsistence users along with everyone else.
"It seems our people are not the priority," Stephen Maxie, Napaskiak tribal administrator, said during Monday's meeting in the village.
Napaskiak started as a seasonal fish camp. Now about 30 fish camps, most with multiple families, dot the shores of the Kuskokwim nearby, he said.
Mary McBurney, who has lived in Alaska most of her life and manages the National Park Service's subsistence program, told the tribal leaders that she hadn't been on the Kuskokwim River before the trip to Napaskiak and was struck by the sheer number of camps.
"I had no idea. It was fish camp, fish camp, fish camp," McBurney said.
Members of the federal board this week are making a rare field trip to Bethel and several Kuskokwim River villages to talk over subsistence issues broadly, this summer's tough restrictions and how to improve the system next time around. Some board members spent Monday upriver in McGrath. On Tuesday, they are visiting Aniak and Kalskag.
During a morning meeting in Bethel, one elder told the federal representatives that when fishing was shut down, it felt like a death in the family. Students from a Bethel Regional High School government class sat in but let the elders do the talking.
Besides stresses over salmon, residents also are upset by restrictions on moose.
This year, moose hunting in an area of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge where Napaskiak and other nearby villages hunt was shut down once 100 moose were killed — which took just four days, Maxie said. Three moose harvested earlier for funeral potlatches counted against that total.
The harvest limit was supposed to go up if the moose population grew, but no one knows if that has happened because there hasn't been a count for three years, Maxie said. Gene Peltola Jr., head of the federal Office of Subsistence Management, confirmed the lack of a new count.
Geoff Haskett, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the tribal council that the Yukon Delta refuge's new manager has made an updated moose count a priority.
Napaskiak is one of 32 villages pushing for a government-to-government relationship and the creation of a tribal fish commission that would run salmon fisheries, Maxie said.
"No state. No federal. We want our tribal fish commission," he said.
While the Federal Subsistence Board has taken jurisdiction of the river at least once before, 15 or so years ago, this year marked the first time subsistence users along with sport and commercial fishermen were blocked from targeting kings, the first salmon to enter the river.
Fishing was shut down before it got going.
Villages with a "customary and traditional use" still could catch a combined 1,000 king, or chinook, salmon.
Maxie said Monday river village residents should have gotten to keep 8,000, far fewer than in prior years. Napaskiak proposed 20 kings for every camp. Instead, the whole village was allocated 32 and decided to quit going after them when managers opened up fishing with nets that drift alongside skiffs. Most of the kings had gone upriver by then and fishermen instead pulled in reds, then chums, then silvers.
Many village residents are poor and need to be careful with expensive products like fuel, Maxie said. When federal managers first allowed fishing with driftnets from skiffs this year, the nets were limited to half-length, which are much less efficient, he said.
"They have no jobs," he said. "They have no income." When summer comes, "it's time to work on fish." Salmon are essential to village life, he said.
Tim Towarak, Federal Subsistence Board chairman and a Unalakleet resident, said federal managers learned a lot this year. Both the federal representatives and village leaders said they must keep talking.
Bev Hoffman, a Bethel resident and co-chair of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, said everyone needs to acknowledge that king salmon are in trouble. Not enough made it to spawning grounds this year to meet even minimal goals, she said.
"What do we do about that?" she asked. "What do we do as a people?"
Tribal leaders said the salmon are essential and that they would conserve fish if they were in charge.
The weather is already turning on the tundra. As to whether village residents ended up with enough salmon for winter, Maxie said that is unclear. King salmon strips and sides are long compared to other salmon. A smokehouse full of kings produces more meat than one in which reds and chum are draped over the poles.