Federal subsistence managers set limits in Yukon Kuskokwim drainage

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Federal subsistence managers Thursday closed all sport and commercial fishing for king and chum salmon throughout most of the Yukon Kuskokwim river drainages. The move marked the federal government's first major break with the state over subsistence fisheries management.

The Yukon and Kuskokwim and their tributaries have suffered from poor salmon runs for several years and another weak run is expected this year. The Federal Subsistence Board, meeting in Anchorage, voted to reserve what fish it could to subsistence users.

Federal and state managers had earlier decided to limit subsistence fishing to three or four days a week on the rivers' lower reaches to allow more salmon upstream. Because they were cutting back on subsistence, board members said they had no option but to close the sport and commercial fisheries on federal waters within those two drainages.

Board members said they were following federal law, which grants a rural subsistence priority even though state law does not. The closure is needed to maintain credibility with rural residents, they said.

''We have to be willing to make these tough political decisions to keep that trust,'' said Judy Gottlieb, the National Park Service representative on the board.

The state, on the other hand, grants a subsistence priority to all state residents and tries not to shut down other users unless it absolutely must. State managers are guided by the state constitution, which grants all state residents equal access to fish and wildlife.

Neither state nor federal managers expect a commercial fishing season this year because of poor runs. The state, however, had wanted to leave open a limited sportfishery and close it only if necessary.

The split between the state and the federal wildlife managers could lead to the next legal and political battle over subsistence.

Board members voted 5-1 in favor of the fishing closures. The dissenting vote came from the Bureau of Land Management. Taylor Brailsford, who cast the agency's vote for BLM representative Fran Cherry, said the BLM opposes the closure because federal managers need to work with the state.

Rob Bosworth, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said Thursday afternoon he was disappointed with the decision. He said he had not yet met with Gov. Tony Knowles to discuss whether the state will sue or take some other action. Bosworth said the decision will ''certainly complicate'' the state's relationship with federal managers.

One of the key issues will be enforcement. Bosworth said the state may choose not to enforce the sportfishing closures.

The lands surrounding both river drainages are in a mix of state and federal ownership. ''What they've done is create a patchwork of open and closed waters,'' said Mac Minard, Fish and Game regional sportfish supervisor. ''It will be very difficult for users to know when fishing is legal and when it's not.''

The closures will take effect June 1 on the Yukon and Kuskokwim river drainages this summer.

The board heard testimony from sportfishing guides and lodge owners who said they would be hurt by the closures, and from subsistence users, who reminded the board of its responsibility to rural residents.

Many rural residents who testified said it would be hard for them to adhere to a closure of subsistence fishing for several days each week while watching sportfishermen continue to catch fish seven days a week.

''To continue to allow the exportation of fish is a hard pill to swallow for my people,'' said Art Lake, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel.

Sportfishermen, on the other hand, said they felt unfairly targeted since they take just a few thousand fish compared with the hundreds of thousands taken by subsistence and commercial users.

''We are not bad stewards of the land who need to be punished,'' said Paul Allred, a guide who runs float trips on the upper Aniak River.



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