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State officials try to contain Western Alaska salmon revolt

Craig Medred

A revolt against the scientific management of Alaska fisheries has erupted in Western Alaska where villagers have decided they simply cannot abide closures ordered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to protect a disastrous run of king salmon to the Kuskokwim River. State officials are looking at numbers indicating the Kusko is getting the worst return of the big fish in a decade.

A test-net fishery used to estimate the size of the run usually hauls in 250 to 500 of the fish per day this time of year. This week, it caught less than a third of that. The Wednesday catch -- the most promising all week -- was 103 fish, hinting that the run might have been delayed by high, cold water. But the catch was still less than half of the 262 fish on the same day last year. And 2011 was a bad year for kings.

Villagers have decided they don't care what the numbers say and are going fishing. The Alaska State Troopers have swooped in to try to quash that sort of behavior. They have seized fish caught in defiance of the closure order and taken nets of people caught with fish to prevent further fishing. More than 30 nets and 1,000 pounds of fish had been seized. Locals, most of whom are Alaska Natives, are angry and demanding action from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and other politicians. Murkowski lost the Republican primary to Joe Miller in 2010, but managed to come back and beat him in a historic run as a write-in candidate; she won in significant part thanks to the state's Native community.

Some of them are now imploring her to do something about the situation in Western Alaska.

Who will buy us food?

"Will the state or government be making amends for the actions that they have done against our indigenous people?" Carla Suskuk asked on the senator's Facebook page. "Some of these fishermen have been devastated by the actions that have been taken upon them. Some people depend on fish as their main resource of food for the whole winter? Are the state or federal officials going to come and freely give us their hard earned money or buy food for us this winter?"

Suskuk was but one of many of the opinion that the needs of humans on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta should trump conservation needs of salmon. A fisherman identified only as "Teddy" by a Bethel-based radio station was one of dozens taking matters into his own hands earlier this week. A KYUK reporter went along as the Yupik from Napakiak went fishing. 

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"I sat around long enough wondering when we will get fish," Teddy told reporter Angela Denning-Barnes. "Today is the day." Denning-Barnes made the case that Teddy had no choice to fish, given a large family plus relatives to feed.

"We're the kind of people that prepare, you know, mostly for winter living, and summer's the only time when we gather a whole lot while we can," Teddy said into a microphone, "'cause this is our store. The whole thing is our store, our Wal-Mart, our supermart. They close that, it's like not going to the store for a week."

If only it was that simple, state fisheries biologists said. When a Wal-Mart runs low on supplies, it can easily order another shipment. But it doesn't work that way with wild resources. Tomorrow's salmon are dependent on the spawning success of today's salmon. Salmon can only restock the shelves by way of reproduction. If too few make it to the spawning grounds this year, there will be even less in the future. If the precedent is set for allowing overfishing to meet human needs, the runs will be overfished year by year until there is almost nothing.

"It's difficult for everybody," said Jeff Regnart, director of the state's Division of Commercial Fisheries. The choices are bad and worse. Pay the price of a weak run by keeping nets out of the water this year, or let people fish and risk paying the price for years by permanently depressing salmon runs. Regnart praised biologists in the regional hub of Bethel on the banks of the Kukskokwim about 340 miles west of Anchorage for doing what needs to be done and putting the long-term needs of the salmon above the short-term needs of people. 

"I think they've been doing admirable work," he said. "I don't think there's anything easy about this."

Calista issues warning

State fisheries biologists for years have worried about a revolt against management on the part of subsistence users who were given fishing and hunting priorities by federal law and encouraged to live off the land. The inherent problem in living off the land is that you can't afford the costs of conservation -- even when your life depends on conservation. It doesn't matter what happens to the fish tomorrow when you need fish to eat today to avoid going hungry, as KYUK reporter Denning-Barnes pointed out.

"The communities along both the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers survive only because of their ability to subsist -- even in the face of limited infrastructure, few full-time employment opportunities, and the highest fuel and energy costs in the nation. Subsistence is not simply an activity we engage in, it is a lifeline,'' Calista Corporation, the regional Native corporation said in a public statement Friday that took state officials to task for what was happening.

"The officials need to build confidence on the part of people who lives depend upon this fishing resource that fish will ultimately become available,'' the statement said. "Otherwise, through distrust and desperate need, people will be forced to take matters into their own hands at possible high personal cost. Subsistence is critical to the health, well-being, and survival of families on both the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. There can be no 'mistakes' or 'misjudgments' of the data when peoples’ lives are at stake. Unlike sports fishing, subsistence fishing provides needed food and nourishment to sustain our region’s families until the following summer."

Calista spokesman Thom Leonard didn't have an answer when asked what state officials were supposed to do if the fish simply aren't there in sufficient numbers to allow fishing this year. He said he'd get answer from higher up. He called back to say that Calista president and CEO Andrew Guy said that "if the fish truly aren't there, then the appropriate agency should pay increased scrutiny to the commercial fishing industry."

There is a widespread belief in Western Alaska that faltering king salmon runs are due to the bycatch of salmon in offshore fisheries for pollock and other bottomfish. There is little evidence to back up that belief. It appears more likely Alaska king runs are in decline because those of the Pacific Northwest are on the rise. There is a long, historic tie between these fisheries that has been documented back as far as about 1900. When one is on the rise, the other is in decline.

Alaska bounty ending?

"They're dealing with record returns" in the Pacific Northwest, Regnart noted, while king salmon runs appear weak all over Alaska. This has happened before. Researchers in 1997 quoted the September 1915 issue of "Pacific Fisherman" magazine on the subject.  "Never before have the Bristol Bay (Alaska) salmon packers returned to port after the season's operations so early,'' the magazine reported in the same issue that said, "The spring (chinook salmon) fishing season on the Columbia River (Washington and Oregon) closed at noon on Aug. 25, and proved to be one of the best for some years.'' Nathan Mantau from the University of Washington's Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Oceans, along with other scientists, tracked this phenomenon oscillating between Alaska and the Northwest throughout the 20th century.

There are some scientists starting to believe the phenomenon could be kicking in again to draw to a close the bounty of king salmon Alaska has known for the last 30 years. Regnart said there is a whole lot more Alaska needs to know about what happens to salmon once they enter the ocean to try to figure this out, but what he and other Alaska biologists already know is that if not enough salmon reach spawning beds in freshwater, the runs really suffer. Biologists had hoped they could get this message across to all Alaskans. They appear to be failing on the Kuskokwim, despite the development of a community working group that was supposed to facilitate communications. 

The working group balked at the king salmon closure and called for some limited openings. The state fisheries biologists said no.

"It's one thing to reach consensus about our approach,'' Regnart said. "It's really another thing to make hard decisions. It is difficult for groups like that to make the hard decision. I think the working group is very valuable in that part of the state, (but) there are going to be some tough times, and this is one of them."

'Never say never'

State fisheries biologists, he observed, have a legal obligation to manage salmon on a sustained yield basis. Sometimes it is not an easy job, but they are committed to it. 

"We have a responsibility,'' he said. "It is incumbent on us to manage."

Still, it's not easy. Regnart worked his way up through the ranks in Fish and Game when salmon runs were almost universally bountiful in Alaska. He knew that could change some day, but like most Alaska fisheries biologists he never really expected it.

"I haven't learned many things,'' he said, "but one of them is never to say never. Mother nature is going to throw things at you. But it was hard to dream of something like this happening, but when it does you have to do the best job possible with the information you have."

So far, he added, he has no regrets. He remains hopeful the king salmon still might show up. He hopes high and cold water is a problem, and that the fish are still on their way. He would like nothing better than for state biologists to be wrong. But as of Friday he had seen no evidence to indicate state fishery managers had blown the call in a game where there is only one try. 

People who suffer in Western Alaska can be helped with food aid flown in from elsewhere. If too many salmon are killed on the way to the spawning beds, there is no way to get them back. Dead salmon don't spawn.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com