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FAIRBANKS - A steady stream of fishermen has given their views about Yukon River king salmon to the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Fairbanks to discuss what to do about the state's largest subsistence fishery.
A standing-room-only crowd of about 150 was on hand Tuesday for the first day of a six-day meeting by the board. Subsistence and commercial fishermen from small villages along the river took turns testifying before the seven-person board in the packed hotel conference room.
Those living on the upper river argued for proposals to get more and larger fish on the spawning grounds, while those from the lower river want to reject the same proposals. Both sides say their subsistence way of life is threatened if the changes are or aren't made.
Those issues have been debated for years about the fishery but have gained importance because of three consecutive weak chinook runs that resulted in severe restrictions this season on subsistence fishermen and a total closure on commercial chinook fishing for the second year in a row.
"Fishermen are frustrated for closing our subsistence way of life," Adlai Alexander, who lives in the upriver village of Fort Yukon, said in reference to the restrictions placed on subsistence fishermen this season. "That's our banquet table out there. It's out in our blood. If we don't have access to that menu, we won't feel good."
At issue, in addition to fewer chinook, is how the fishery is managed. Advisory committees from several villages on the upper river have submitted proposals to the Fish Board that target techniques that fishermen on the lower river use to catch fish, such as drift-nets and nets with large-sized mesh that catch the biggest, oldest and most-productive kings.
"All these proposals, they're all pointed down to my area," John Riley Sr., 65, from the lower Yukon village of Pitka's Point, told the board.
Riley said the salmon are more important than ever because of the high cost of gas and food in his village. A gallon of gas costs more than $6, and a pound of butter costs about the same.
If the board choses to ban drift gillnets, Riley said it would devastate fishermen in the lower river, where drift netting is common.
Alexis Walters Sr., from the lower river community of Mountain Village, told the board to "put yourselves in our shoes" by considering the importance of a subsistence way of life to Native people. Imposing restrictions on catching fish would be unfair to the people on the lower Yukon, he said.
Virgil Umphenour, a former Fish Board member, wrote several of the proposals as a member of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee and Eastern Interior Regional Advisory Council. He said the same proposals have been submitted to the board for the past 30 years and the board's inaction has resulted in a biological disaster for the river.
"These proposals are all directed at conservation," he said. "They're not directed at the lower Yukon River. They're directed at the entire Yukon River to preserve and rebuild the genetic integrity of king salmon so my grandchildren can fish for them."
Clayton Tackett, of Fort Yukon, urged the board to "show favor for tradition and culture" by considering the needs of subsistence fishermen on the upper river before those of commercial fishermen on the lower Yukon.
"We don't make a living on food that is considered customary and traditional," said Tackett, representing the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwichin Tribal Government. "We're not saying stop (commercial fishing) but let the people who have been fishing for thousands of generations get their fish for their families."
After hearing more public comments Wednesday, the board will break into committees Thursday and Friday to discuss and amend proposals on a regional basis. It will reconvene Saturday and Sunday to act on specific proposals.