Alaska Natives join biologists in fish studies

Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Natives are joining with biologists to study fish in cooperative agreements extending from Southeast Alaska to the Yukon.

The projects, which range from radio tagging to fish counting, are expected to give biologists a better understanding of Alaska salmon runs.

''Our salmon assessment on the Kuskokwim is better this year than it has ever been in the past,'' said Doug Molyneaux, a research biologist in the Bethel office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Wayne Morgan of the Kuskokwim Native Association said the new kind of relationship between area residents and fishery managers is giving Alaska Natives more of a say when fisheries decision are made that affect them.

''We want to be more involved with management decisions,'' Morgan said. ''Anything that has to do with salmon, we need to be more involved.''

State biologists have conducted research on many salmon streams around Alaska for years. But that hasn't been the case in much of Western Alaska, where research dollars have been scarce because most rivers lack the commercial value of the Kenai or Copper rivers.

Molyneaux said, for example, until the early 1990s little was known regarding salmon on the 540-mile Kuskokwim, the fourth-longest river in Alaska. On the Kuskokwim's hundreds of tributary streams, the state had just one counting station and only a vague idea of how many of each species returned in a year.

That lack of information led to the first cooperative management project. Kuskokwim king salmon dwindled in the 1980s, yet biologists had no idea why. When the commercial fishery was closed in 1987, fishermen were angry, Molyneaux said.

In response, the Alaska Board of Fisheries created the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, which required biologists to sit down face to face with fishermen and explain their decision making.

From that beginning, fishermen began to feel their voices were being heard, said Morgan, now co-chairman of the Bethel-based group.

''The state could always override our vote,'' he said, ''but they haven't exercised that very much. They take a lot of our recommendations.''

Like the state, federal fishery managers are also now working with Native organizations on cooperative salmon management and have had their own difficulties on the Kuskokwim, said Ken Harper, assistant project leader for research in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Though salmon streams crisscross the 20 million-acre refuge, ''we had no idea of what was going on with some refuge rivers,'' he said.

In 1991 and '92, his agency set up weirs on the Kwethluk and Tuluksak rivers to count salmon. It was basic research, but village residents had no idea what the weirs were or why they were needed. By 1994, the villages demanded that both be removed.

Greg Roczicka, head of natural resources for Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel, said opposition to the two weirs stemmed mostly from misunderstanding. He said people weren't informed before the streams were fenced off and the fishermen feared the projects would harm their salmon runs.

The uprising prompted refuge managers to join the Kuskokwim working group, and they eventually persuaded the villages to give the weirs another try.

This summer, six weirs are operating with a combination of state or federal funding, plus manpower or logistical aid from tribal organizations.

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