ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Federal Subsistence Board this week will take up the difficult issue of whether to close most of Western Alaska's king and chum salmon fisheries to sport and commercial fishing.
If the board does decide Wednesday to close all but subsistence fishing on federal waters within the Yukon and Kuskokwim river drainages, it could lead to a fight between state and federal managers.
''The key issue here is the subsistence priority and what it means,'' said Tom Kron, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ''Things look so bad we're telling people it's likely they will get a third to half of the salmon they need for the winter.
''It's serious. We have to give a priority to subsistence users when there is not enough fish for everyone.''
Subsistence users in the region proposed the closure, and it was recommended for approval after some changes were made by federal managers. The affected rivers include the Kwethluk and Kisaralik and part of the Aniak in the Kuskokwim drainage and the Andreafsky in the Yukon.
The Yukon and Kuskokwim river drainages have suffered from poor salmon runs off and on for the past decade. Biologists don't know why the runs have declined, but they expect another poor run this summer.
Both governments agree that sport and commercial fishing must be curtailed first to protect subsistence fishing. But when and to what extent?
The federal government wants to close down sport and commercial fishing before the season starts to get as many fish as possible to subsistence users. Federal managers would open other fisheries later if the salmon runs turn out better, Kron said.
The state Department of Fish and Game, on the other hand, has proposed cutting the sportfish harvest in half by lowering the bag limit for kings and chums to one fish a day for the drainages in June and July. It would close sport and commercial fishing only if fish returns this summer show it is necessary.
''We don't see a reason for enacting closures before the season starts,'' said Rob Bosworth, deputy Fish and Game commissioner. ''We make those closures as needed as we evaluate the strength of the runs.''
The federal agencies are acting under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act guarantee of rural priority for subsistence. The state is operating under the Alaska Constitution, guaranteeing all residents equal access to fish and wildlife.
The federal government took control of subsistence fishing two years ago.
The rivers are not wildly popular with sport anglers, but they do lure tourists from around the world and support about a dozen guides and lodges. Critics of the federal proposal said it would put those lodges and guides out of business to save just a few fish. The subsistence harvest for kings and chums on the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers usually totals several hundred thousand fish. Sport anglers catch just a few thousand fish from those rivers.
Roy Wooderson, owner of Hook-M-Up Tours, said he may have to close two fishing lodges on the Aniak and Kuskokwim. Though anglers could still catch other fish species like grayling, char and Dolly Varden, Wooderson and other guides said, most people come to Alaska to fish for salmon.
''We're not trying to hurt anyone,'' said Herman Morgan, an Aniak resident who supports the subsistence proposal. He chairs the Central Kuskokwim Fish and Game Advisory Committee, which advises the Alaska Board of Fisheries. ''Salmon are in crisis right now, and we're just trying to protect the resource.''
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