AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Kuskokwim elders may get fishing priority over others

Jill Burke
Attorney James Davis talks with defendant Felix Flynn before his trial in Bethel court. Flynn was cited for subsistence fishing for king salmon during a closure last summer. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Fishermen walk into a Bethel courtroom for their trials. Each of the 25 defendants were cited last summer for subsistence fishing for king salmon during an emergency closure. They are relying on a religious defense, saying that the taking of king salmon is an essential part of their culture and religion. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Defendant Felix Flynn swears to tell the truth before Judge Bruce Ward in Bethel Court. Flynn is cited with subsistence fishing for king salmon during an emergency closure last summer. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska State Trooper Brett Gibbens takes the stand in the trial of native fishermen who protested an emergency closure last summer. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A defendant wipes away tears after listening to testimony by elder Noah Okoviak. Both were cited after defying an emergency closure last summer. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Defendants and supporters of the subsistence fishermen cited for defying an emergency closure last summer stand in silent support of elder Noah Okoviak. Mr. Okoviak is 67 and has lived a subsistence lifestyle his entire life. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A supporter of the native fishermen cries during elder Noah Okoviak's testimony. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Peter Berlin takes an oath before testifying in his own defense. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
John Alexie listens to a trooper's testimony through a translator. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Defendants confer with their lawyer, James Davis, during a recess. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A defendant, in the custody of the court, awaiting his trial for subsistence fishing during an emergency closure. May 20, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

With the controversial fish trials over and done with in Bethel, Alaska, villagers are watching the Kuskokwim River for signs of better times for 2013. On the heels of one of the worst salmon returns in years, and a subsequent revolt on river closures that landed dozens of fishermen in court, river managers have come up with an access plan for this summer to try to dampen the disappointment and disobedience of 2012.

The plan includes crafting a provision that would allow elders to be able to fish even if some closures are necessary – an option described as "a new management tool."

On Friday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced its 2013 Kuskokwim River king salmon forecast. It predicts 160,000–240,000 fish, with a drainage-wide goal of getting 65,000–120,000 of the kings to spawning grounds. If the run meets these predictions, Fish and Game has said there will be enough fish to allow people to go fishing to feed their families.

In 2012, with a run size of about 135,000 fish and a subsistence harvest of about 58,000 fish, the king salmon spawning goal was missed by just under 45,000 fish.

Looking now to the start of the 2013 season, out of caution, some poorly producing tributaries of the Kuskokwim River will start the year with restrictions and limitations. But the Kuskokwim River itself will be open to what river managers call “unrestricted gillnet mesh size.” They are, however, quick to point out restrictions on the Kusko may again be necessary for 2013 if the fish fail to show up.

If that happens, management actions may include salmon fishing closures, subsistence fishing restrictions, rolling closures, limitations on net size, the use of hooks and lines, and bag limits.

Yet even if the salmon available for subsistence harvest is very small, managers have one more option: the ability to designate an “Elder's Fishery,” which would allow anyone 60 years or older to go out and fish. The elder fishermen may have family assistance, but the elder must be present and the family members must be close family members, defined as those within a “second degree of kindred” – parents, siblings, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and in-laws.

“King salmon harvested during an 'Elder’s Fishery' are intended to contribute to the subsistence needs of elders” and provide an “opportunity for the passing of knowledge about cultural fishing practices from older generations to younger generations,” the Department of Fish and Game explained in a news release describing its approach to the 2013 Kuskokwim River fishing season.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com