ANCHORAGE - Louie Wagner is keeping a close eye on proposed new federal regulations governing the sale of subsistence foods. If adopted, the rules would allow cash sales of subsistence harvests, within limits.
The changes could mean that Wagner's family might be allowed to once again sell subsistence-caught hooligan to locals in and around Ketchikan and Metlakatla, much as his ancestors did.
Each spring, Wagner, his brother and his son travel 90 miles from Metlakatla to fish for hooligan on the Unuk River. Their catch totals about 25,000 pounds, which they sell to make extra money and provide fish to the community.
The state, however, in recent years has required that the Wagner family fish under commercial permits. That means they take just a fraction of what they once sold.
"My family has done this forever," Wagner said. "But it's been a real struggle over the last 10 years."
Federal subsistence staffers are working with subsistence users to figure out how to permit those kinds of traditional sales of subsistence foods while protecting fish stocks and closing a loophole in federal law that effectively set no limits on cash sales.
The Federal Subsistence Board plans to discuss the proposed new rule at its meeting in December and to approve a final rule this spring.
The state allows no cash sales of subsistence foods, except when approved by the state boards of fisheries or game. Federal agencies, however, set no limit on the sale of subsistence foods two years ago when it took control of subsistence fishing on federal waters, except that sales could not amount to a "significant commercial enterprise."
"Right now you could have a commercial enterprise taking place under the guise of subsistence," said Pete Probasco, a fisheries biologist with the federal Office of Subsistence Management.
But how to limit sales without interfering with traditions has proved a tricky exercise. Probasco said the goal of the proposed regulations is to allow small cash sales that already occur throughout the state, even if the state considers such transactions illegal.
As written now, federal regulations don't put a limit on cash sales between rural residents. But a task force has proposed a $1,000 limit on salmon sales between rural residents and others. That limit is meant to allow the practice of selling dried salmon strips at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives conference, for example.
The new rules would forbid subsistence sales to fisheries businesses.
Terry Haynes, acting assistant director of the state's Division of Subsistence, said the state is glad the federal government is closing the loophole that allows unlimited sales to commercial enterprises. But the state still considers the rules too lax.
"What will this mean for salmon stocks, particularly in areas where they are under some stress?" Haynes asked.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation also has health concerns because subsistence-caught foods are not inspected or processed by approved methods.