Ninilchik gets priority on Kenai

Subsistence board grants ‘customary use’ designation for rural residents

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Federal Subsistence Board found Ninilchik residents have a subsistence priority in portions of the Kenai River drainage on federal lands — more than doubling the number of rural residents who’s fishing priority could nudge anglers off one of the state’s most popular sport fisheries.

Ninilchik is only the most recent of three communities the board has determined have subsistence priority on the waters of the upper Kenai River drainage on federal lands. Hope and Cooper Landing also have been granted a subsistence priority for the same waters, but with nearly 800 residents Ninilchik is by far the largest of the three. Together, Cooper Landing and Hope have just a little over 500 residents.

The board approved the Ninilchik Traditional Council’s request for the subsistence priority on Friday, despite opposing arguments that Ninilchik has not exhibited a long term and traditional fishing history in the upper Kenai River drainage waters on federal lands, which lay approximately 80 miles by road from Ninilchik.

On Thursday, however, proponents of the Ninilchik subsistence priority said a state study showing that 28 percent of the community’s current residents had fished the waters at some point in their lives and testimony from Ninilchik tribal elders indicates Ninilchik has a traditional, long-term use of the area.

Proponents said that while Ninilchik residents may have relied more heavily on the Kasilof River at their doorstep, that they also sometimes traveled long distances to meet their needs, even before roads connected them to more distant waterways.

Ninilchik Traditional Council member Greg Encelewski, told the board on Thursday that Ninilchik residents traveled from one river to the next to target different runs. And before a road was built connecting Ninilchik to the Kenai River in the 1950’s, residents hiked and boated to reach Kenai fish runs, he said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, however, argued that survey numbers don’t support a Ninilchik subsistence priority in the area.

The department said that of the 28 percent of Ninilchik residents that reported fishing the upper Kenai River drainage waters at some point in their life, some may have done so only once. Of that 28 percent just 13 percent said they fish the river almost every year and 4 percent said they only use the area intermitently, said Fish and Game, which collected the data. And when a sampling of Ninilchik residents were asked if they fished in the upper Kenai River area in that year, only 7 percent said they had.

Fish and Game said that for this and other reasons Ninilchik residents fall short of meeting the eight factors that the board considers when determining if a community has what it refers to as a subsistence priority, or “customary and traditional” use in an area.

Prior to voting on the issue, however, comments from the board’s attorney Keith Goltz, suggested that how long or to what extent Ninilchik residents fished in the drainages waters, which include the Russian River, Kenai Lake and Swanson River, matter little.

Goltz said subsistence priorities granted today do not have to mirror a community’s historical use patterns, and that the eight factors the board considers when deciding where a rural community may be granted a subsistence priority should be used in a holistic maner rather than as a formula.

Chairman Mike Fleagle, said he was confident in voting in support of the subsistence priority because he believed it was the board’s job to determine whether a community has a long-term and traditional use of a fish “stock” rather than of a particular location.

He said although several separate river systems flow from the Kenai Peninsula, that the peninsula’s fish could be viewed as part of the same stock, and that Ninilchik clearly has a customary and traditional use of that stock.

The board voted 5-1 in favor of the subsistence priority for Ninilchik, which is the second customary and traditional use finding the community has been granted. Ninilchik also has customary and traditional use finding for the Kasilof River drainage area on federal lands.

In their request for the subsistence priority in upper Kenai River drainage waters, the Ninilchik Traditional Council said the priority designation would allow them to distribute their subsistence fishing between two river systems, rather than burden a single river system with meeting the community’s subsistence needs.

Goltz asked that opponents of the customary and traditional use finding remember that although subsistence users have priority over other user groups that subsistence is subject to limitations as is any other fishery.

“It has to be non-wasteful uses and there are numerical limits on the take,” he said. “In addition, the board has a great deal of flexibility in how it would implement any subsequent allocations.”

Patrice Kohl can be reached at

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