Subsistence fishing not just for Alaska Natives

While subsistence fishing is a way of life for indigenous people, it's open to all Alaskans living in rural areas

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

Almost everyone has heard it in the harbor or on the water.

"The poor, subsistence fisherman ...," or "Subsistence fishermen are taking all the fish," or even "I wish I could subsistence fish, but I'm not Native."

All of these sayings make wrong assumptions about subsistence fishing, and it's surprising how many people have misconceptions. But even though the subsistence laws are long and complicated, some basic information can help any person get a better understanding of the practice.

For starters, when many people think of subsistence, they think of poverty. There is a negative connotation associated with subsistence and this has upset many rural Alaska Natives. Subsistence is not poverty to them, but simply a way of life - a way of living that has been passed on through generations.

Amy Paige, a subsistence resource specialist at the Alaska Division of Subsistence, said surveys showed that some of the wealthiest people in the rural villages were catching the most subsistence fish. However, they also were giving away a large portion of the catch to many, many families.

"For many instances you cannot equate subsistence with poverty," Paige said. "It's central to a social organization in a community."

Another myth about subsistence is that only Alaska Natives are allowed to subsistence fish. Subsistence fishing is not just for Alaska Natives; it's for all Alaskans living in rural areas. In fact, a little more than half of rural Alaskans are other than Native.

The only subsistence that has Native-only stipulations is marine mammal hunting.

"Any Alaska resident can go into subsistence area, get a permit and fish subsistence," Paige said. "They just need to catch them in a traditional way other than a rod and reel."

Many Juneau residents qualify for subsistence because they are a part of a recognized tribe. And halibut subsistence is regulated by the federal government and is limited to only those tribal groups or village residents with traditional and customary uses of halibut.

Reggie Demmert, a Tlingit from Kake, is one of many Juneau residents who subsistence halibut fish. However, Demmert is not particularly pleased with how the limits of where he can fish were laid out.

"Subsistence halibut fishing has always been a part of our culture - it's our way of life," he said. "I just don't know why we have to go so far. All I have is a 13-foot Whaler and when you fish in the Icy Straits, it can pick up fast."

Salmon subsistence areas also are limited with Sweetheart Creek and the Taku River as the nearest to Juneau.

Another myth about subsistence fishermen is that they harvest too many fish and deplete the fish supply.

This again is not true. Studies have shown that subsistence fishermen and women harvest a mere 2 percent of the total catch. Commercial fishing takes the vast majority of the total, yearly harvest.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Subsistence Division has more detailed information about subsistence fishing as well as rules and regulations on it Web site found at

One of the best pieces of information is an article written by Robert Wolf, research director for many years for Fish and Game, titled "What Have You Heard," which dispels many of the myths of subsistence without having to wade through the typical, labored government verbiage. Although it was written 14 years ago, most of the information is still very relevant.

Jeff Kasper is a freelance writer and former Empire sportswriter; he can be reached at 209-7427.

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