Villagers, managers cope with western fish shortages

Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Fishermen in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region are seeing regular closures of fishing opportunities and disruptions in customary subsistence patterns as federal and state regulators make decisions aimed at rebuilding salmon stocks.

Closures on subsistence fisheries were first imposed last year in the region of state economic disaster declarations in four of the past five summers.

''People cooperated pretty good down this way last year,'' said James Charles of Tuntutuliak 40 miles southwest of Bethel. ''My wife doesn't complain because she gets a break.''

Last year, closures came in an atmosphere of friction between state and federal agencies. Federal managers shut down commercial fishing on the Yukon River and sportfishing on parts of the Kuskokwim before the season began.

This year, federal managers are holding back, working more closely with the state to make midseason decisions based on how many salmon return. Forecasts for the king salmon run this year are a little more optimistic than last year.

Even so, resumption of the small-scale commercial fishing, important to the region's impoverished villages, is considered unlikely.

Biologists don't know the exact cause of the run declines in western Alaska, which started a decade ago. New ocean conditions tied to temperature changes probably play the biggest role, they say.

The challenge of rebuilding salmon runs is compounded by the dual federal-state management system for fisheries, which took effect last year. The dual system is a consequence of the clash between federal law and the state constitution over who should get a subsistence priority.

The first full test of that dual system is coming in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, with its extensive federal land, its overlay of commercial and sport fisheries, and its Native subsistence villages, most of them tiny and poor.

Federal and state managers agreed last year on the subsistence windows, which were designed by the state Board of Fisheries to distribute early returning fish to upriver harvesters and improve the genetic mix of the spawning runs. Traditional practices tended to hammer the first part of every salmon run, with more spawning by fish that arrive later in the summer.

''It spreads out the harvest, but if people put in the effort they'll get what they need,'' said Rod Simmons, fisheries subsistence coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal and state governments clashed last year over how to cut back sport and commercial fishing in the region.

The state, which has greater flexibility, wanted to cut back sport bag limits on the Kuskokwim's tributaries and manage commercial fisheries based on run strength.

The federal government had a more narrow mandate -- to protect subsistence -- and one major tool -- shutting down other fisheries.

This year, the state and federal governments have drawn up new cooperative agreements. State biologists will take the lead during the fishing season. Federal biologists will watch closely and may close waters if they disagree.

''We still reserve the right to diverge where necessary,'' said Tom Boyd, the assistant regional director for subsistence of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Federal decisions on commercial and sport fishing will have to be made in late June, Boyd said.

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