Subsistence problem needs solution from Alaskans

Posted: Friday, July 14, 2000

During a recent radio call-in show, Sen. Robin Taylor referenced what he believed to be the subsistence position of several commercial fishing organizations, including the Alaska Trollers Association. Since then, I have fielded several inquiries about ATA's position and want to set the record straight.

ATA's first and foremost concern is securing state control of fish and game. There are numerous opinions about how best to accomplish this, but as yet, Alaskans have been unable to come to term with a united approach.

A constitutional amendment has been broadly debated. In times of shortage, this option would allow special subsistence priority for rural residents to harvest fish and game. This would bring Alaska into compliance with subsistence provisions of the Alaska Native Interest Land Claims Act. However, such an amendment raises many other questions and would not be a cure-all. In fact, many issues of concern to the commercial fishing community may best be addressed through congressional changes to ANILCA.

Like most of Alaska's commercial fishing groups, ATA supports amending ANILCA to provide definitions for key terms, such as ``rural'' and ``customary barter and trade.'' For instance, does anyone in Alaska really think the Kenai Peninsula is rural? Or, do cash sales of up to $15,000 have anything to do with subsistence? Amazingly, the federal courts have said yes to both.

While ATA supports true subsistence use, its terms must be defined in law by Alaska standards, not dictated by the opinions of Lower 48 judges. Without adequate direction from Congress, the Ninth Circuit Court will continue to interpret ANILCA from its point of reference. After all, I'm sure 60,000 people spread over a huge area like the Kenai seems mighty rural to a judge living in a city of several million.

For many years, ATA only supported ANILCA amendments. However, the Alaska Legislature held two special sessions during which ATA supported a multi-pronged approach to subsistence, which included ANILCA amendments and the vote on a constitutional amendment. In 1998, ATA was disappointed to see the Legislature turn down a broadly supported bill that included these elements.

During the 1999 special session, ATA again supported sending the subsistence issue to a vote. While we were uncomfortable that ANILCA amendments were not yet secured, we saw one final opportunity to buy time for Alaskans to come to terms with the issue. Instead, the Legislature narrowly defeated a bill that might have bought us that time.

Remember, the vote of the Legislature would in no way ensure how you or I would have voted at the polls. Perhaps we would have decided a constitutional amendment was not in our best interest. Then again, we may have decided it was. At least we would have had a year and half prior to the election to continue the discussion and develop a better and more complete plan. Instead, the federal government is laying claim to Alaska's resources and managing them.

Today, we, in fisheries, find ourselves in a precarious position. The federal government is obviously gearing up to expand control, and rumor has it that 100 new federal positions will deal with subsistence. All I know for sure is that the federal government has large new offices in Juneau and Anchorage and many staff members have been tasked to subsistence. The federal government's only mandate will be to provide for subsistence use. The worst part is that the state and commercial fishermen have no viable means to work constructively within the Federal Subsistence Board process. How will we resolve conflicting regulations or work together to balance impacts on the resource and the users? Questions abound.

Some say a lawsuit is the best and only way to go. ATA agrees that there are some key legal and jurisdictional questions in need of answers. But what happens in the meantime, to people who rely on harvesting the resource, goes far beyond the courts, rhetoric and ideology.

Will the feds step in and manage navigable waters? I have no idea, but ATA is concerned that our state is now much more vulnerable through the failure to resolve this important issue. Where we go from here is the question of the day. For the sake of our state, we Alaskans must come together and find the solution that fits our true needs.

Dale Kelley is the executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.

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