Proposals could limit Alaska Yukon salmon fishing

Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) January 2011
After several years of poor runs, frustrated Yukon River salmon fishermen will be watching closely as a federal board that oversees subsistence fishing in Alaska meets this week to discuss management strategies.

Some drastic changes are on the agenda of the Federal Subsistence Board, which opens its four-day meeting this week in Anchorage, but most appear unlikely to pass. They include prohibiting the use of subsistence-caught salmon for dog food in some areas, and a fishing moratorium of 12 years on the first pulse of king salmon that come into the river, from the mouth all the way to the Canadian border.

Other proposals include prohibiting the use of “fish wheels,” devices that scoop up salmon as they rotate in the river’s current, in the middle and upper Yukon; outlawing the sale of subsistence-caught fish for customary trade in the same region; and capping the sale of subsistence-caught kings to non-rural residents at $750 per household.

The board is likely to reject most of the proposals, which face opposition from regional advisory councils, the federal Office of Subsistence Management and the state Department of Fish and Game, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

The proposals illustrate the tension and frustration fishermen are feeling after several years of poor runs and restrictions on commercial and subsistence fishing aimed at getting more fish on the spawning grounds.

“Folks are looking for someone to blame,” said Fish and Game deputy commissioner Craig Fleener, who grew up in Fort Yukon. But, Fleener told the newspaper, “I don’t think there is anyone to blame.”

He said fisheries biologists believe the state is in a downturn for salmon production, “and that gets translated into trying to find a scapegoat.”

State and federal managers considering management strategies for this year’s chinook run have already said that, barring an unexpected turnaround, there will almost certainly be restrictions in place on this year’s king salmon run, and the chances of any commercial king fishery are slim.

The loss of commercial fishing for king salmon on the lower Yukon, once a lucrative business for fishermen in that region, has left residents trying to find ways to rebuild the fishery, said state fisheries biologist Steve Hayes, the Yukon area manager for the Department of Fish and Game.

Some of the proposals targeting fishermen on the middle and upper Yukon River were submitted by a group of fishermen from the lower Yukon village of Mountain Village, apparently in retaliation for a proposal adopted by the state Board of Fisheries last year that will reduce the size of mesh allowed in fishing nets this season to 7 1/2 inches. The smaller mesh is aimed at reducing the harvest of the oldest and largest kings.

The new net size regulation pertains to the entire river, but fishermen on the lower river feel it is aimed at them because it was proposed by upriver users.

“I think some of the proposals were definitely put in as a result of frustration,” said Jill Klein, executive director for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. “People in the lower river felt targeted.”

Now, it’s fishermen on the middle and upper river who are being targeted by proposals from downriver fishermen, who are accusing upriver fishermen of catching king salmon to feed sled dogs and selling large amounts of fish illegally under federal customary trade regulations.

A proposal that would prohibit fish wheels in the middle and upper Yukon while allowing them elsewhere on the river is “totally uncalled for,” according to James Kelly of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon.

Likewise, a proposal to ban the use of subsistence-caught salmon for dog food is a blatant attack on the subsistence lifestyle of fishermen on the middle and upper Yukon, where the majority of dog teams are located, said Richard Burnham of Kaltag.

“The use of dog teams is woven into the very fabric and history of this state,” Burnham wrote in response to the proposal. “My feeling is that as long as there is still a sled dog pulling a dog sled somewhere along the Yukon River, it should be able to eat a salmon taken from the Yukon River.”