ANCHORAGE - Federal subsistence managers Thursday closed all sport and commercial fishing for king and chum salmon throughout most of the Yukon Kuskokwim river drainages on June 1. The move marked the federal government's first major break with the state over subsistence fisheries management.
The Yukon and Kuskokwim and their tributaries have suffered from poor salmon runs for several years, and another weak run is expected this year. The Federal Subsistence Board, meeting in Anchorage, voted to reserve what fish it could to subsistence users.
Federal and state managers earlier had decided to limit subsistence fishing to three or four days a week on the rivers' lower reaches to allow more salmon upstream. Because they were cutting back on subsistence, board members said they had no option but to close the sport and commercial fisheries on federal waters within those two drainages.
Board members said they were following federal law, which grants a rural subsistence priority. The closure is needed to maintain credibility with rural residents, they said.
"We have to be willing to make these tough political decisions to keep that trust," said Judy Gottlieb, the National Park Service representative on the board.
The state grants a subsistence priority to all state residents and tries not to shut down other users unless it absolutely must. State managers are guided by the state constitution, which grants all state residents equal access to fish and wildlife.
Neither state nor federal managers expect a commercial fishing season this year because of poor runs. But the state wanted to leave open a limited sportfishery and close it only if necessary.
The split between the state and the federal wildlife managers could lead to the next legal and political battle over subsistence.
Board members voted 5-1 in favor of the fishing closures. The dissenting vote came from the Bureau of Land Management, which opposes the closure saying federal managers need to work with the state.
Rob Bosworth, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said Thursday afternoon he had not yet met with Gov. Tony Knowles to discuss whether the state will sue or take some other action.
Bosworth said the state may choose not to enforce the sportfishing closures.
The lands surrounding both river drainages are in a mix of state and federal ownership. "What they've done is create a patchwork of open and closed waters," said Mac Minard, Fish and Game regional sportfish supervisor. "It will be very difficult for users to know when fishing is legal and when it's not."