Subsistence rally skips planned civil disobedience

Protest: No net gain

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2001

A chilly wind hit Salamatof beach on Saturday, but it was winds of change the crowd of some 100 people were looking for.

Tim O'Brien and Hal Becker, co-chairman of Alaska Residents' Subsistence Organization, had organized the gathering to encourage the state of Alaska to re-examine its stand on subsistence. Earlier in the week, they said the focal point of the day would be the illegal setting of a net off the gravel beach.

"When the territory of Alaska became a state, subsistence was the only right guaranteed," said Becker, of Soldotna. "Since then, other fisheries have come on board and subsistence has been taken away."

O'Brien, of Kenai, said the organization's focus isn't to take away from other fisheries, but to "regain what was promised to us."

"A lot of people are uneducated about what government has done to us," Becker said. He pointed to the meaning of "subsistence" found in the Alaska statutes: "the noncommercial,

customary and traditional uses of wild, renewable resources by a resident domiciled in a rural area of the state for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, or transportation, for the taking and selling of handicraft articles out of nonedible byproducts

of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption, and for the customary trade, barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption. ..."

But Becker and O'Brien said subsistence shouldn't be limited to rural areas only.

"We're talking the entire state," Becker said.

Nor should it favor any segment of the population.

"This is not a racial issue," O'Brien said. "It's for all people of the state of Alaska."

Although a cork line bobbed in the incoming tide, the plan to attach the net changed after Becker and O'Brien were encouraged by Alaska Fish and Game officials to exhaust all legal avenues before resorting to illegal actions.

The course of action left unexplored, they said they were told, is submitting a petition to the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Clipboards with petition forms circulated through the crowd Saturday. Those signing their names declared their support of:

n The opening of all public beaches within the state to subsistence fishing;

n The amending and rewriting of existing laws that require residents have a sport fishing license in order to subsistence fish in controlled waters; and

n That approval be given to an appropriation from the Alaska General Account Fund for monitoring and enhancing the sockeye salmon fishery and its habitat.

"This is a peaceful demonstration," O'Brien told the gathering.

"We're not looking for a fine," Becker said. "We want to bring this issue into the justice system, not the criminal justice system."

An information sheet entitled "Know your rights" also made its way from hand to hand.

"It's time that all the people of the state of Alaska make a stand together and let our state elected and local government officials know that we are sick and tired of the way they are running and controlling our way of life in Alaska," it read in part.

O'Brien said he is also the subsistence spokesperson for Kenai Peninsula Resource Management Coalition. The group's mission statement, developed Dec. 6, boils the meaning of subsistence down to, "A way of life which is customary, traditional, and culturally and spiritually dependent on Alaska's wild resources for food or for personal use and in no way whatsoever shall be gifted, bartered or traded, except for food or personal use, and may not be sold or utilized for monetary or economic gain."

"I have a right to put food on my table and feed my family, but they've made me a criminal," said O'Brien of the current laws limiting subsistence.

As people continued to come and go all afternoon, Becker estimated that nearly 100 signatures had been gathered.

"What I've heard is that if a half dozen people submit a petition, (the Board of Fish) doesn't pay too much attention, but if it's 20 or more, then they start looking at what's going on," Becker said. "We're looking at getting a thousand or more."

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