Subsistence board allows rural residents to trade fish

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE - The Federal Subsistence Board adopted a regulation Tuesday that allows rural residents to trade or sell subsistence-caught fish among themselves or to nonrural residents.

Following hours of testimony and debate, the board voted unanimously in favor of the customary trade measure. The rule bans sales to licensed commercial fishery businesses such as processors.

The new regulation does allow rural residents to trade subsistence fish, their parts or eggs with others as long as the fish is for personal use only by the buyer. Nonrural residents are not allowed to sell, barter or trade subsistence fish.

In adopting the rule, board members made one amendment to the original proposal. They added a clause recognizing regional differences that might define customary trade differently from each other.

Tuesday's action follows more than two years of meetings of a task force made up of representatives of the state's 10 regional councils and state and federal agencies. The proposal adopted was a majority staff recommendation by a federal interagency committee.

The regional councils also came up with their own separate recommendations that the subsistence board reviewed Tuesday.

The board decided to consider the ancient tradition of customary trade after the federal government assumed management of subsistence fisheries on federal land in 1999. Federal regulations allow sales of subsistence catches as long as the sales do not add up to a "significant commercial enterprise."

The board's goal was to clarify that vague wording to prevent abuses and better enforce limitations, said Pete Probasco of the Office of Subsistence Management.

Last spring, the six-member panel postponed taking action on a final rule to allow more public comment. The result was a wide variety of opinions presented during a public comment session Tuesday.

Some speakers urged the board to postpone making any decisions until there was further study. Some called for better enforcement efforts - including requiring permits for transactions - to protect against a small percentage of people who might abuse the system. Others called for dollar or percentage limits to the amount of fish that can be sold for personal use. Commercial fishing interests wanted assurances that subsistence-caught fish would not end up in commercial enterprises.

Nicholas Tucker of Emmonak warned against taking a blanket approach, given differences in traditions from region to region.

"I do not think that after 10,000 years, ample time has been given to this," Tucker said. Any decision made should be temporary, he said. "We'll never make it perfect today."

Board chairman Mitch Demientieff noted that any issue can be revisited in annual reviews.

The less done the better, said Mike Smith of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, whose members include subsistence fishermen along the Yukon River. There is no need for permits or other measures to monitor abuse, he said.

"It's an unduly burdensome process for a perceived problem," he said. "I haven't seen any evidence showing there's been a problem."

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