Fishermen talk of flouting rules during king run

Fishermen on the lower Yukon River will get the king salmon they
need to feed their families, even if it means getting a ticket or
going to jail, two Alaska Native leaders said.

State and federal wildlife managers tightened the rules on
subsistence fishing this summer, a “last-resort” decision to boost
the number of kings returning to spawning grounds, said Steve
Hayes, who manages the run for the Alaska Department of Fish and
Game.

The Yukon River management plan calls for no subsistence fishing
along the river during the first pulse of king salmon, as well as
sharply reduced fishing periods later in the run.

The first pulse traditionally accounts for about 25 percent of
the run, though that percentage has dropped in recent years.

That burst of kings, which usually passes the village of
Marshall in mid-June, is also when many families get the king
salmon they need for the year, said Nick P. Andrew Jr., executive
director for the Ohagamiut Traditional Council.

Many people in the lower Yukon area need the food badly because
they emptied their caches of subsistence-caught salmon, moose and
other food earlier than normal this year, he said.

High energy prices this winter – gasoline exceeded $7 a gallon
and people paid several hundred dollars a month to heat homes –
pinched wallets and made it difficult to buy store food, Andrew
said.

His family of seven ran out of salmon – the area’s most common
subsistence food – by January.

“I’m out of frozen salmon, I’m out of salmon strips, I’m out of
chum salmon dried fish,” he said.

In a letter published on Web sites owned by Alaska Newspapers
Inc. on Friday, Andrew said he and other fishermen plan to fish
during the first pulse.

“Please prepare to hear from us as we get ticketed in our
attempts to feed ourselves as our ancestors did,” he wrote.

“Right now, many families ran out of salmon (both dried and
frozen) because we had no choice but to fall back on all
subsistence foods all last winter as food and fuel prices
climbed.

“I am not afraid, I may get fined and perhaps jail.”

Reached in Marshall on Monday, Andrew said he hasn’t heard of
any organized effort to flout the rules. But he said several people
have told him they’ll fish during the planned closure.

Andrew called it an informal act of “civil disobedience.”

A cousin in a nearby village had recently called on the phone to
say he’s fishing during the first pulse.

“He’s caring for his elderly parents, as well as his family,”
Andrew said. “They need salmon. The first pulse, after a long
winter of struggles, it’s our godsend.”

Andrew said he’ll fish out of necessity, and to send a signal
that big business can’t shut down local fishermen.

Many villagers blame the huge pollock industry for the run’s
troubles, saying it mistakenly catches thousands of salmon in the
Bering Sea that should be bound for the Yukon. They’re mad state
officials haven’t done more to stop the problem.

In 2007, the pollock fleet caught a record 122,000 king salmon,
though the bycatch number was 20,000 last year. Studies have shown
that not all of the bycatch fish are headed to the Yukon River.

Yukon subsistence fishermen catch about 50,000 king salmon
yearly. Historically, about 250,000 kings return to the river, but
only about 160,000 have returned in each of the last two years.

A recent move by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to
slap penalties on the pollock fleet for catching too many king
salmon didn’t go far enough, Andrew and others have said.

The penalties first must be approved by the secretary of the
U.S. Department of Commerce. That’s not expected until next
year.

Hayes said he understands the plight of the fishermen, but hopes
they can appreciate the run’s fragile situation and abide by the
rules. Fishery managers came up with the plan with input from
fishermen during meetings held last winter, he said. “We’ve done
all this work this winter about the run size and the importance of
meeting escapement goals,” he said. “We hope they’d follow the
reduced subsistence schedule.”

“We understand it’s unfortunate and it’s going to be a hardship,
but we are trying to protect the fish for the future,” he said.

Myron Naneng, head of the Association of Village Council
Presidents, the regional Native nonprofit that provides social
services in the area, said people should fish if they need to, even
if it means breaking the law.

“I’ve heard people say they’re going to fish if they need food,
and we can’t tell them they can’t,” he said.

The state management plan also calls for no commercial fishing
for Yukon kings, leaving people with few opportunities to make
money this summer, he said.

“The only store they can afford right now is the river,” he
said.

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