Biden administration sues Alaska over opening fishing grounds over shortages

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When fish numbers are low, who can continue to harvest fish in rural Alaska? Federal agencies only say local and rural residents. The state of Alaska says all Alaskans.

The Biden administration filed a lawsuit May 17 against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game over fish openings on the Kuskokwim River during fish shortages.

The lawsuit is part of a longstanding dispute between federal land management agencies and the state over subsistence or wild food gathering for nutrition and cultural practices.

This latest brawl was sparked by the state ignoring federal authority over the Kuskokwim River, which runs through the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The state held fishing openings for all Alaskans on the same days the federal government had limited openings to local rural residents due to low fish numbers.

U.S. Department of the Interior communications director Melissa Schwarts said in a prepared statement, “This week, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced harvest openings in violation of law. that would interfere with the rural subsistence use priority provided by Title VIII of ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act).

She said “the anticipated low numbers of returning chinook and chum salmon necessitate restrictions on the taking of salmon into the refuge with openings limited to federally qualified rural residents.”

In its court papers, the Justice Department said the state had warned federal agencies of its intent to disregard both federal scientists’ estimates of when fishery closures are needed and the authority of federal agencies to set harvest limits. According to filings, current Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang expressed in 2014 “the state’s future intent to ignore federal closures and provide harvest openings to all Alaskans…”

For its part, the state says it lives up to its responsibility to uphold the state constitution, which prohibits exclusive or special privileges to take fish and wildlife, and reserves them for use. common.

Grace Lee, temporary media liaison and assistant attorney general, said: “While we are still reviewing the complaint, the state stands by its management decisions. These decisions are based on a sound scientific basis guided by a management plan and parameters approved by the Alaska Fisheries Council with input from the local stakeholder working group. This ensures that there are adequate livelihood opportunities for Alaskans while adhering to the principle of sustainability enshrined in the Alaska Constitution,” she said.

“It is unfortunate that the federal government is choosing to sue instead of working with the state to meet the subsistence needs of all Alaskans who are not only nutritionally dependent on these fisheries, but have also strong cultural and traditional ties,” Lee said. .

This conflict has been ongoing since at least 1989 when a court ruling declared that ANILCA and the state constitution contradict each other. Congress and state lawmakers have not since amended ANILCA or the state Constitution to resolve the dispute.

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The Kuskokwim River Delta is home to millions of ducks, geese and other migratory waterfowl as well as five species of salmon, brown and black bears, caribou and moose. The refuge is home to a dozen villages where the Yup’ik, Cupik and Deg Xit’an Athabascan predominate.

Subsistence is vitally important to these villages, as it is to the economy of all of rural Alaska. Store-bought food is expensive due to the high transportation costs of bringing it in by barge or plane.

For example, in Akiak, a village of 400 people on the Kuskokwim River, a dozen eggs cost $6.65 at the Kokarmiut general store. Hamburger is $7.30 a pound. These types of prices are one of the reasons local harvests of fish and game are measured in the hundreds of pounds.

Subsistence is also deeply rooted in indigenous cultures. John Active, a Yup’ik elder who has since died, told Cultural Survival in 1998, “Our subsistence way of life is our culture. Without sustenance, we will not survive as a people. If our culture, our subsistence way of life were to disappear, we will be no more.

Refuge managers work closely with the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents 33 tribes. In its court documents, the Interior Department said it also contacted the state to coordinate the management of the fishery at the refuge.

Kevin Woodworth, the commission’s acting executive director, said fish populations on the Kuskokwim have dropped to levels ranging from poor to disastrous.

“Over the past decade the returns of king salmon have been very low. Here on the Kuskokwim, for the past two years, chum salmon returns have reached an all-time high – simply a disaster. And there hasn’t been enough king salmon for several years for people’s needs…this year it doesn’t look good that either species will be able to support local people.

Commission board chairman Mike Williams, Yup’ik, who is also chief of the Akiak Tribal Council, said that with gasoline for boats and snowmobiles between $5 and $6 a gallon, villagers want to harvest food as efficiently as possible but have to turn to species that are more difficult to harvest in quantity.

“So we’re catching more white fish and also catching more shee fish and supplementing that with pike and other species. Plus we’re hunting more beaver and also making sure you know we have our Our caribou (hunting seasons) were also closed here, but we supplemented our salmon with other species, so it’s been a struggle and we’ve missed every winter,” Williams said.

“We have to rely more on store-bought food. We have relatives in the Yukon (area) that we wanted to send (food) to, but we just manage with what we have on the Kuskokwim River,” he said.

The Kuskokwim Inter-tribal Fish Commission is considering its options for suing alongside the federal government.

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