Program outlines basics of subsistence fishing

Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2002

Perhaps no issue in Alaska has the power to confuse people like subsistence. Under the current system, subsistence fishing is managed by both the state and federal governments, depending on where you stand (or float) in Alaska.

In order to clear up some of this confusion, the United Fishermen of Alaska has created a program to disseminate information on subsistence rules and policies within the federal management system.

Tom Morphet, subsistence outreach coordinator for UFA, gave a presentation Tuesday night in Soldotna on subsistence rules affecting the Kenai Peninsula. Morphet spoke on two new subsistence fishing rules and also discussed how the public can get involved in the subsistence management process.

The first of the new regulations Morphet discussed deals with the new subsistence fishery created on the upper Kenai River and elsewhere on the Kenai. The fishery is not limited to the Kenai River, but includes several thousand acres of federal land within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach National Forest, as well as portions of Lake Clark National Park on the west side of Cook Inlet and areas of southern Denali National Park.

Morphet explained that the new fishery was created to address a lack of any other subsistence fishery in the area. This rule came about through the federal government's subsistence decision-making process after a proposal was submitted to create the new rule.

Subsistence fishers participating in this fishery will be held to the same regulations in place for sport fishers. This change means that anyone with a subsistence permit can now legally fish federal lands under the same rules as sport fishers, regardless of whether they have a sports fishing license or not. However, this fishery does limit the species subsistence fishers can take to salmon, Dolly Varden, trout and char.

Under federal guidelines, any rural Alaska resident can participate in this fishery. The federal government considers most areas of the state to be rural, with the exception of some urban population centers located in Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, Southeast Alaska and elsewhere.

The second item Morphet discussed was a proposal dealing with customary trade under federal rules. Under federal law, subsistence fishers are allowed to sell or trade their catch, on a limited basis, in order to support their families or subsistence needs.

Both state and federal law provide for customary trade. However, state law only allows customary trade where the Board of Fisheries permits it. Currently, this is limited to the sale of herring roe in Southeast.

According to Morphet, there has been some confusion over how this provision should be applied. He said that the Federal Subsistence Board has struggled with one aspect of the law in particular.

The rule states that customary trade can take place only if "it does not constitute a significant commercial enterprise." This portion of the regulation has given federal managers the most trouble, said Morphet, due to the ambiguousness of the language. As long as the rule remains unclear, enforcement of what constitutes a "significant commercial enterprise" is almost impossible.

"Anytime new regulations are put in place, it stands to reason enforcement is going to be a concern," Morphet said.

Sales or trade of subsistence-caught fish are permitted to other subsistence users, private individuals or businesses other than fishery businesses.

The Federal Subsistence Board is currently looking at ways to make this rule more clear. Testimony will be taken through the end of March on five proposed alternatives to the customary trade proposal. Proposals include capping the amount of money that can be made from customary trade or requiring transactions be documented.

"Federal managers are trying to make an allowance for these sales on a real small level," Morphet said.

Morphet closed his presentation by explaining the means for people to get involved in the federal decision-making process, and the differences between how the state and federal government make subsistence decisions.

The regional advisory councils have real power in shaping regulations. The federal board accepts the recommendations of the advisory councils, as long as the proposals are not detrimental to the resource or subsistence and are supported by evidence.

Anyone can serve on an advisory council, provided they are a resident of the area they intend to serve, and have an interest in subsistence management. The second part of this provision is open to fairly broad interpretation and does not mandate council members be subsistence users.

Proposals and comments are not limited to subsistence users, or even Alaska residents.

"Anyone can submit a proposal," Morphet said.

Proposals can be submitted to the Office of Subsistence Management or to the regional advisory councils. Written comment on proposals can also be submitted at any time during the decision-making process.

The deadline for proposals for 2003 is March 29.

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