Feds will stay out of Area M salmon fishery

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

ANCHORAGE The federal government will not override state regulators who loosened catch limits this year in the False Pass fishery.

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton announced Tuesday she had turned down the request by Western Alaska communities and fishers who said commercial fishing at False Pass at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, also known as Area M, affected their subsistence take farther north along Alaska's coast.

The Federal Subsistence Board took two days of testimony on the issue. Norton said she was not swayed to intervene and pre-empt the state authority.

''Neither the petitions, nor the testimony, nor the written comments provide substantial evidence for such an extraordinary intervention,'' she said.

She did, however, urge more research into the decline of subsistence harvest levels of salmon in Western Alaska.

The state Board of Fisheries in February lifted restrictions that that had been in place for three years for Area M fishers, nearly tripling the time seine and gillnet fishers could catch sockeye salmon around False Pass this month.

Subsistence fishers from Bristol Bay to Nome strongly protested, saying incidental catch of chum salmon would cut off their dwindling subsistence supply, as well as subsistence sockeye in some areas of Bristol Bay.

They petitioned the federal government to extend its jurisdiction over the state-run waters. The Interior secretary, Norton, and Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman can extend federal jurisdiction to protect a federal interest such as a subsistence priority.

Federal subsistence biologists in Alaska recommended against intervention. The biologists said limits on information made it difficult to reliably anticipate the outcome of changes in the Area M fishery.

Using the best research available, they said, the state's new regulation still would provide adequate subsistence fishing on federal public lands.

Their recommendation went to the Federal Subsistence Board, which collected two days of testimony on the matter in April. The board's recommendation to the secretaries was not made public. Norton said her decision to intervene was made with the concurrence of Mark E. Rey, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for resources and environment.

Despite turning down the petition, Norton expressed concern for declines in the subsistence harvest levels in some areas of western Alaska. She called for more state research to learn the cause of the declines.

''This is a concern to us, and we take to heart the testimony of many people from the affected areas of western Alaska,'' she said.

Aleutians East Mayor Stanley Mack, speaking from his home in Sand Point, said he was happy with Norton's announcement. Fishers are gearing up for the season opening Monday.

''I think all the information provided proved positive in our regard,'' he said.

But Myron P. Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said from Bethel that the decision was a case of history repeating itself.

The federal government for years relied on the state of Alaska to protect the interest of subsistence fishers as provided for in federal law and did a poor job of it, he said.

The state has had 30 years to resolve the dispute at False Pass and still lacks appropriate research, he said.

''They still haven't gotten any new scientific information to help them make a good, sensible decision,'' he said.

Every three years when the matter comes before the Board of Fisheries, subsistence fishers have to fight for their rights, he said.

''It's a political football game year after year,'' Naneng said.

The current state administration consistently chooses economic over subsistence, and the Bush administration leans heavily on states' rights, he said.

''The federal government is once again relying on the state of Alaska that has failed consistently to protect subsistence,'' he said.

Secretary Norton should give the state a deadline for finding out how Area M fishing affect the subsistence take of western villages, he said.

''I would hope that Secretary Norton would not encourage, but in some way require, the state of Alaska to implement some way to get good information to deal with this issue once and for all,'' Naneng said, and if the state fails, take over the Area M fishery.

Gov. Frank Murkowski applauded Norton's decision. He said it was the state's responsibility and authority to manage and conserve Alaska's resources.

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