Morphet clarifies subsistence

Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Navigating the murky waters of subsistence management in Alaska can be a daunting task. With both state and federal law to deal with, many people often are confused as to which laws apply to their area and why.

Although he doesn't have all the answers to why, Tom Morphet can usually tell people which laws apply to lands and waterways in their area. As subsistence outreach coordinator for the United Fishermen of Alaska's Subsistence Management Information program, Morphet currently is traveling around the state giving updates on current federal and state subsistence regulations.

Although his program was created to help people understand federal law, Morphet told the Kenai Chamber of Commerce last week that because of the overlapping jurisdictions in Alaska, he often ends up answering both state and federal subsistence questions.

"People in Alaska ask, 'How do two different governments manage the same uses for two different sets of people on two different sets of land when wildlife is moving between those two different sets of land?'" he said Wednesday.

It's not an easy question to answer. Fortunately, Alaska residents have someone like Morphet to help explain which laws apply to them in their area. His job was created after the federal government took over management of subsistence on its lands in 1990 following an Alaska Supreme Court decision that said a rural subsistence priority is unconstitutional.

That led to two sets of subsistence laws in the state, with two sets of managers. Further complicating the situation was the Katie John case, which said the federal government also had the right to manage federal waterways within Alaska. That set up a situation where certain sections of the same river could be managed entirely separate from one another.

"For the first time, the state of Alaska no longer was the final say on managing the fresh water fisheries of Alaska," he said.

Morphet said that means a Yukon River king salmon, for example, will travel back and forth between federal and state waters as many as five or six times as it swims into the Interior.

"It's kind of a mixed-up way to manage a resource," Morphet said.

The situation of dual-management is present right here on the Kenai Peninsula. According to Morphet, roughly 5,000 of the approximately 45,000 Kenai Peninsula residents are considered "rural" by the federal government, meaning they have certain subsistence rights other peninsula residents don't have on federal lands.

That includes the ability to take advantage of federal subsistence fisheries on the Kenai River, which flows through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

That fishery, created in 2001, has not been a big issue in the area because of the nature of the regulations. Morphet said the Kenai fishery basically mirrors state fishing rules for the Kenai. In other words, a subsistence fisher would have to adhere to the same daily bag limits and methods as a sport fisher.

"The only difference is you don't have to pay for a permit," Morphet said.

Last year, only seven federal subsistence permits were issued for the Kenai, with just 36 fish harvested. Morphet said that because the fishery is so similar to the sport fishery, few people have even taken notice of the federal rules.

Still, subsistence law is always changing. Although there are not many conflicts now on the peninsula, the Federal Subsistence Board will meet in 2005 to entertain proposals for new regulations.

Morphet said that's why people in the area need to take an active role in the public process. Seats soon will be available on the Cook Inlet regional council, with the only requirement being that a person live in the area.

"You don't need to be a rural resident to serve on the council," Morphet said.

In the meantime, anyone wanting to know a little more about the subsistence situation in Alaska is welcome to contact Morphet at his office in Juneau at (888) 586-6822. or at his Web site at

The purpose of having an office like Morphet's is simple, he said, yet extremely important to the people of Alaska. Subsistence is a big, complicated issue, and he's simply there to answer whatever questions people might have about it.

"It's just a good place to go," he said.

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