Federal subsistence board looks at sales of salmon

Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The federal subsistence board is taking public comment on the sale of salmon taken by subsistence fishermen.

Since the federal government took over management of subsistence fishing throughout much of rural Alaska, rural residents are allowed to sell small amounts of salmon for cash.

Federal regulations consider cash for salmon an acceptable customary trade as long as it doesn't constitute ''a substantial commercial enterprise.''

Therein lies the predicament, said Stan Pruszenski, special agent in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement.

''From Southeast Alaska to Barrow, we've got lots of interpretations'' of what constitutes ''significant commercial enterprise,'' he said. No one disputes that customary trade -- including trade for cash -- is an integral element of subsistence fishing. ''We're just trying to define quantity.''

It's not a big problem yet, Pruszenski added, but ''the potential is there.'' When salmon returns are so low that commercial, sport and even subsistence fishing are cut back, he said, ''we have to go back and look at the (congressional) intention for the resource. Is it for the trade, or is it for personal use?''

Harry O. Wilde Sr. and other residents of Mountain Village have always counted on catching salmon to eat all winter at their camps along the lower Yukon River. Though Wilde doesn't sell or trade the fish he catches, he said it's understandable.

''Today it's not like a long time ago. Transportation is different. Outboard motors, snow-gos -- they burn gas,'' he said. As commercial fishing has withered in Alaska, people need cash, he said.

Not surprisingly, the sale of subsistence-caught salmon raises the blood pressure of some Alaskans. They see it going against the intent of Congress when the subsistence priority was established.

The Federal Subsistence Board is considering whether to continue current practice or set limits on the amount of cash or salmon that can be traded. Public comment will be taken through Nov. 1.

Last winter, the board took public comments on the issue and had planned to make a final decision in May. Because of the heated response, it postponed final action until January and published several alternatives for new regulations.

Among them are stricter prohibitions to keep subsistence-caught salmon out of commercial markets.

Other proposals would limit the total cash sales an individual or household could earn from salmon, ranging from $400 to $1,000 a year, or would limit the seller to half his or her total catch. Some have proposed different limits for Alaska's 10 federal subsistence regions.

Cash or poundage limits would create a dilemma for enforcement officers, Pruszenski said. It would be easy to bust a fisherman who exceeded them, but agencies would need a way to track sales.

''Documentation is the key,'' he said. Unlike commercial fishermen, who must sell their catch to buyers using state-certified scales, no such system exists for subsistence fishermen.

Another hurdle is determining where the fish were caught, Pruszenski said. State- and federally managed subsistence fisheries often are in adjacent waters, but the state does not allow cash sales. There is no way to tell where a salmon was caught unless the fisherman was seen hauling it out of the water.

Some rural residents prefer the status quo simply because of the complexity of the issue, said Allakaket resident Ronald Sam, chairman of the Western Interior Regional Advisory Council.

''It will be darned near impossible to know or enforce or even count'' how many salmon are being sold, he said. If regions have different regulations, Sam warned, ''you're opening Pandora's box.''

His advisory council has asked the Federal Subsistence Board to postpone action again to give people more time to comment beyond Nov. 1, Sam said.

The Alaska Outdoor Council would prefer no cash sales at all, said subsistence spokesman Dick Bishop. ''Anytime you have a provision for sale of these resources, you have the potential for mischief,'' he said.

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