It's not legal to make subsistence fishing illegal

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009

In my 20-plus years of work as a fisheries biologist with the state Fish & Game's Division of Commercial Fisheries, and then 8 years with the U.S. Forest Service, I can sympathize with Sen. Albert Kookesh and his co-defendants accused of subsistence fishing violations. There has been little acceptance and active management for a subsistence priority in recent years.

Bob Loescher had me "preach to the choir" at last Friday's Grand Camp Subsistence Panel session, but I'd hope that this column will promote some sympathy and understanding by those who think its about time these subsistence "violators" are cited.

Is it legal to make subsistence fishing illegal?

We must understand, accept and provide for the ways that people living in traditional, Native villages sustain their body and spirit by fishing, hunting and gathering for what they eat. "Living off the land" is not easy. Knowing where, when and how to harvest is a skill, such as how knowing how to "put away" the harvest is a skill. This all takes patience, resourcefulness, effort and the wisdom of "customary and traditional knowledge." Subsistence living is nearly a full-time job. Those with full-time jobs usually harvest with a shopping cart.

Unfortunately in this day and age, you almost need a full-time job to afford to be a subsistence user. Take subsistence salmon fishing for example. Boats, motors and nets cost real money and in rural communities there are often only a few members with jobs and enough income enough to own functional boats, motors and nets. Thus, the subsistence needs for many in a community often rely on the traditional generosity of the few with the necessary resources to do the harvesting.

Once the fish are caught and brought back to the community, other family members and neighbors help clean, smoke, can and freeze them (with everyone sharing the bounty). Nothing is wasted; nothing can afford to be wasted. Subsistence fishing is all about efficiency. Money is limited, the resource is limited, and we must respect the cooperation and resourcefulness that rural residents have long used to meet their subsistence needs.

Unfortunately, we don't. In fact, in Southeast Alaska, inappropriately low harvest limits on subsistence fishing permits make it effectively criminal to live on subsistence - and criminal to provide for others.

The over harvest citations recently issued to four subsistence fishermen from Angoon is a good example of how routine subsistence fishing is made illegal. Subsistence fishing permits limited the daily possession and annual harvest limit to 15 sockeye salmon from Kanalku. This is a 15-fish limit per permit and only one permit is issued per household. A 15-fish limit is not enough to meet the subsistence needs of the permittee's household, much less those of his or her neighbors. The permit holder will need to subsistence fish on other stocks, too. Nevertheless, the subsistence fishers were doing everything legal. They had their permits, the season was open, their net was legal and legally fished, and the fish were there. They just had 73 more fish than their permits said they should have.

It doesn't matter that the Kanalku sockeye escapement was the largest on record. It doesn't matter that fish attract fishers. It doesn't matter that Angoon residents had voluntarily fished elsewhere in years that the Kanalku run was weak. It doesn't matter that subsistence sockeye were harder to get elsewhere.

It doesn't matter that both the "legal" and "confiscated" fish were shared with others in the community, and it doesn't matter that the routine under reporting of harvests on subsistence fishing permits reflects a tacit acceptance that the limits are too low and not meeting subsistence needs. Likewise, it really doesn't matter that the subsistence fishers were harvesting only as much as they needed while the commercial seine fishers have been harvesting only as much as they could, without limits fishing two days on and two days off in adjacent waters.

However, it should matter that conservation concerns for Kanalku sockeye in recent years has been addressed by increasing enforcement patrols of the subsistence fishery rather than by moderating the commercial fishery. This is not managing for a subsistence priority, it is harassment.

Citations should be given for wanton waste violations, illegal methods and means violations, and the commercial sale of subsistence-taken fish. But not for subsistence users who responsibly follow tradition of fishing where there's fish, harvesting what they catch, keeping what they need and sharing with others. This is the "subsistence priority" state and federal managers must embrace and legalize. Time to put the citation books away and actively manage for escapement and subsistence needs. It is not legal to make subsistence fishing illegal.

• Ben Van Alen, of Juneau, has spent nearly 30 years working for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the U.S. Forest Service.

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