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Alaska subsistence fisheries

This year’s story of fisheries along Alaska’s Yukon River has a distinct similarity with events last summer when lack of fish led to severe economic distress over the winter.

Emmonak and a few other Alaska Native villages became national news when they were aided first by bloggers and other organizations, eventually receiving help from the State of Alaska in securing assistance for heating oil and food.

Once again, the summer subsistence and commercial fisheries along the lower Yukon is either limited or non-existent. In some places, subsistence fishing is set at a few hours per week, and commercial fishing is suspended indefinitely. These villages are currently awaiting word from the new Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, former governor of Washington state, on the determination of emergency status for the hard-pinched communities.

In addition to the fishing limitations, several villages were hit hard by spring floods which brought massive chunks of ice crashing into houses and fish camps along the river bank. Federal funds for flood victims have been instrumental in assisting those who are now rebuilding their homes and lives.

As the summer passes, some villages have acquired up to half their subsistence catch so far, but many are still waiting with empty fish drying racks. Confusion over success of the subsistence fishing in some of the hardest hit villages came about after Gov. Sarah Palin posted on twitter that Emmonak was one of the places where subsistence fishing was going well. Palin has since resigned as governor.

Alaska’s Rural Advisor John Moller reported that Nicolas Tucker of Emmonak said in a meeting that Emmonak had 50 percent of its subsistence catch and expected to completely meet subsistence needs this year. An angry Tucker refutes the statement which he said was made by someone else in the meeting from another village.

Tucker wrote a letter to his local paper that led to the outpouring of help for his community during the cold winter. According to him, Emmonak still has a serious lack of sufficient subsistence catches.

Moller could not be reached for comment. An e-mail to his office resulted in an automatic response that he was out of cell phone range. The governor’s office stated he had – gone fishing.

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Bycatch in the Ocean, Protest on the River

Blame for the lack of salmon in the Yukon is attributed by some to the ocean-going pollock fishing fleets which waste thousands of salmon during each harvest season as bycatch. Pollock is a $1 billion a year business, catching tons of pollock annually and providing a cheap food source to markets around the world. Though some Alaska Native villages benefit financially from the pollock fisheries, the benefit is not sufficient to balance the loss of subsistence and commercial salmon fishing.

During an April meeting in Anchorage, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council heard from members of the Alaska Native community eager to protect traditional resources. In response, the council set a cap on salmon bycatch to equal not more than 60,000 fish per year. The decision was touted as a huge step by some, while others believe the action to be inconsequential.

As reported by the Anchorage Daily News, State Department official Nicole Ricci voiced strong disappointment saying the cap is inadequate and will not help meet the U.S. treaty obligations with Canada. The treaty requires healthy returns of salmon stock to Canada’s portion of the Yukon River.

According to Ricci, the cap number cannot be called a reduction as it is already higher than the average bycatch from the last 10 years. It may be some time before it is clear if the cap is effective. The council’s vote must also be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and will not go into effect until 2011. In an effort to be more responsive to the Alaska Native community, the council has formed a new seven member group, specifically to meet with Native leaders. The group is newly formed and has no set meeting date.

While more meetings are planned and policies considered, some Alaska Native villagers are taking matters into their own hands. Recalling the spirit of the fish-ins by the Nisqually Tribe of Washington State in the 1960s and 1970s, a few Alaska Native fishermen are staging a fishing protest and distributing the fish to those most in need.

Nick Andrew Jr., a member of the Ohagamuit tribal government from Marshall, a Yup’ik Eskimo village wrote to his local paper, saying protest is necessary to return Native fishing rights. It has been reported that the Association for Village Presidents, which represents 56 villages surrounding Bethel supports and encourages similar protests for those who need the fish.

The Alaska State Troopers are sending an officer to investigate the reported infractions. As of print time, the troopers say the only evidence they have are the newspaper reports, and that they can’t site anyone unless they find corroborating evidence. The state troopers’ office says that if convicted, the protesters would be guilty of misdemeanors. Protesters would be fined, and could have equipment seized.