Subsistence fishing needed for the people
On behalf of Calista Corporation, I support and share the concerns of families and tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region regarding recent subsistence closures on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. It was an honor to have been invited to and participate in some of the meetings regarding this season’s fish subsistence issues. While subsistence fishing is now open indefinitely there are issues that need to be addressed now.
Historically, half of all subsistence fish have been harvested by late June each year. We understand that the fishery experts are advising that the scarcity of fish may be attributable to the Kuskokwim’s high water levels and the cold water temperature which may be delaying their movement into the rivers to spawn. However, if they are wrong and the situation does not change, people will be short on food this coming winter.
In the Yup’ik language, the word for fish and the word for food are the same. It is crucial that not only the yearly runs be protected, but our traditional ways of life be supported and protected.
One concern we have are the extended closures used this season. Subsistence fishing later in the summer is not a valid option since the weather becomes wetter which increases the drying time of hanging fish, and the fly population explodes and destroys the normally sanitary conditions of traditional fish preparation. Additionally, while we understand an extended closure seems logical to allow pulses of fish to run upriver, nature does not rely on logic. The Elders in the region function like Google does in the world: they are a tremendous source of information. An Elder holds generations of experience and knowledge, in addition to his own lifetime of experience. We encourage agencies to seek and utilize input from Alaska Native entities or non-profits who tap the experience of Elders prior to making decisions.
Another concern we share with the Y-K region is the method used for fish counting, which are outdated and too static. Specifically, the fish counting weir on the Kuskokwim River has been in the same location for several decades. In that time, river features like the underwater channels change, and with these alterations the paths of the fish change as well. These natural changes over time are adapted to by the fish; the appropriate agencies should adapt as well.
Perhaps the largest concern we share with the region is the bycatch from commercial fishing. The tremendous scale of bycatch is a major issue for the region, and our people feel that more attention and scrutiny is warranted. We applaud and recognize previous efforts to protect salmon runs, including extending commercial fishing boundaries farther offshore. However, additional steps should be made and enforced to further limit activities that impact large runs of fish.
The communities along both the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers survive only because of their ability to subsist — even in the face of limited infrastructure, few full-time employment opportunities, and the highest fuel and energy costs in the nation. Subsistence is not simply an activity we engage in, it is a lifeline.
Calista supports the families and tribes in safely harvesting fish for their winter food needs, and urges state and federal agencies to communicate more openly and effectively with the general public and protect subsistence interests and resources for people in the region. We thank all the agencies and officials that recently participated in talks in Bethel. Quyana, U.S. Senator Begich, Alaska State Sen. Lyman Hoffman, State Rep. Bob Herron, AVCP, Tanana Chiefs Conference, village tribal representatives, and all the other representatives that attended the July 2 meeting, and the other fish meetings held this year.