Gustavus granted subsistence rights

Posted: Thursday, November 23, 2006

Steelhead's for supper in Gustavus.

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The Federal Subsistence Board granted the community federal subsistence fishing rights during a meeting last week.

Chuck Burkhardt, the Gustavus resident who asked for the rights, is pleased. Now he can fish legally for species such as steelhead in his own backyard.

"I like to eat steelhead and other types of fish I can't get under the state regs," he said.

Burkhardt grew up in Juneau, moving to Gustavus six years ago to enjoy the quiet, open space and rural lifestyle. He lives primarily off the land.

Until the board ruling, Gustavus residents were able to fish only under state subsistence rules, which can be more restrictive. Steelhead trout could be caught and kept only if the fish were longer than 36 inches, an extremely rare size, said Cal Casipit, the federal subsistence staff biologist.

Not everyone is happy, however. Nearby Hoonah residents don't like it because they believe the rights should belong to Native Alaskans.

Much of the opposition is philosophical.

"We won't really lose anything, but it is just a matter of principle," said Michael See, chairman of the Hoonah Indian Administration's committee on customary and traditional use designations.

The federal subsistence rights are termed "customary and traditional use."

See says the designation doesn't make sense.

"When you say 'customary and traditional' you are speaking of things that have gone on for centuries. Gustavus wasn't even there when my mother was born," he said.

Johanna Dybdhal, tribal administrator for the Hoonah Indian Administration, agreed.

"Gustavus is our ancestral homeland," she said. "We were forced out by the advancement of the ice, and it kind of rankles some people."

The federal rules base the granting of subsistence rights on a species population rather than the population of people. To understand it, Casipit says, one must recall the early 1980s, when federal subsistence rules were being hammered out.

It was later determined that subsistence rights would be granted to all rural residents.

Subsistence rights have long been mired in controversy and legal action, and Burkhardt said he's ready to continue the fight to ensure the future of the rural lifestyle.

He applied for Gustavus to be considered under federal fishing regulations last year and would like to be granted federal rights to hunt moose in Berners Bay.

"I am not fighting against Hoonah. I am going to go for all rural residents," Burkhardt said. "I am not racist or biased or anything else. I want the rural people to be allowed to have their rights. And that is what the rule says and I'm fighting for it. I think has been a long time since anybody stood up for it."

See said he doesn't want to fight with Gustavus, either.

"I can see where they are coming from. We are all supposedly rural and we all have this supposedly rural regulation. But we are fighting for our rights too," he said.

Several non-Native communities were excluded when the federal government was charged with overseeing subsistence management in Alaska. These include many throughout Southeast, such as Tenakee Springs, Wrangell and Petersburg.

Whether the federal ruling will have a ripple effect on those communities seeking similar rights is tough to say.

"I think some of these other communities are going to want to pay attention to this," Casipit said. "We only revise our regulations as they are proposed to us,"

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at

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