Subsistence board takes up customary trade issue

Posted: Monday, January 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Federal Subsistence Board takes up the issue of trading subsistence caught fish for cash when it meets Tuesday in Anchorage.

The trading of fish for cash has been a customary practice among some Alaska Natives. Federal managers hope to pin down how much cash can trade hands before subsistence fishing is considered a commercial enterprise.

''It's a very important issue, not only to rural residents but other residents of the state,'' said Pete Probasco of the federal Office of Subsistence Management. Public comments thus far suggest this is one of the touchiest topics ever taken up by the Federal Subsistence Board, he said.

Subsistence fishermen want to continue their customary practice, though some have proposed limiting the amount of fish sold or the income a fisherman can earn.

''In our culture, it's been done for years and years and years,'' said Fred John Jr. of Delta Junction. ''It's just something natural for us to do.''

Others fear that subsistence fishing will become a quasi-commercial undertaking.

''Anytime you have a provision for sale of these resources, you have the potential for mischief,'' said Dick Bishop, subsistence spokesman for the Alaska Outdoor Council. His organization prefers no cash sales at all.

The subsistence board started looking into the issue of cash trades shortly after the federal government took over management of subsistence fisheries on federal land in 1999. Regulations allow for sales of fish, fish parts and fish eggs as long as they don't constitute a ''significant commercial enterprise.''

Violations of the law are rare because of the loose wording, Stan Pruszenski, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said last fall.

The subsistence board had planned to address the issue last spring. It postponed action to allow more public testimony.

The Office of Subsistence Management has recommended to the board that fishermen be allowed to sell unlimited amounts of fish to individuals, both rural and urban, provided the fish is used only for personal or family consumption. The fish may not be resold, nor may the fisherman sell salmon to a person or business licensed as a fisheries business.

Probasco said the proposal is specifically broad, with the expectation that it will be refined gradually.

''We recommended the board first address the biggest area for potential abuse,'' which is letting subsistence fish slip into the commercial market, he said. Safeguards already in place include a requirement that subsistence-caught fish be marked and 24-hour closures between commercial and subsistence openings.

The board will also see separate proposals from its 10 advisory councils, which represent different regions of the state. All the councils propose no sales to fisheries businesses, and one asks that sales be limited to human consumption. That would prevent sled dog owners from buying fish for their teams.

But some advisers have called for harvest or sales limits to individuals. The Southcentral Alaska council would allow unlimited sales of Copper River and Cook Inlet salmon to other rural residents but a maximum of $500 a year in sales to nonrural residents. Further, it asks that subsistence fishermen sell no more than 30 percent of their catch.

The Northwest Arctic council sets the sales limit at $1,000 a year.

The most restrictive proposal comes from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where villages have asked to prohibit cash sales to nonlocal residents.

''Cash sales of subsistence-caught fish to nonrural residents is not and never has been a component of customary trade in our region, and is in fact in conflict with the customs and traditions of our region,'' says the resolution adopted last March by the Association of Village Council Presidents, according to association vice resident Allen Joseph.

If the board approves cash or harvest limits, it would likely have to create a tracking system for fish sales. For that reason alone, several councils and subsistence staffers have asked for unlimited sales, Probasco said.

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