The Tundra Drums - CAUYAT - The Beat of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta


By Nick P. Andrew
Tribal Administrator, Marshall Traditional Council 

Leaders must come together to maintain food security


In a remote region where hunting, fishing and gathering is essential for survival, a valued Yup’ik Eskimo traditional and customary food staple that have sustained our people since time beyond beginning is in decline. Food security is now a seasonal uncertainty. As our ancestors did, we too anxiously await the return of valued oil laden king salmon (chinook). According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Subsistence 2010 Survey, in Marshall 46 out of 85 households indicated that 23 percent of their diet was king salmon next to 17 percent being moose. As the mission statement of the Division of Subsistence states, “To scientifically quantify, evaluate, and report information about customary and traditional uses of Alaska fish and wildlife resources.” This survey validates dependence on wild game, and Marshall residents alone consumed 134,427 pounds of chinook salmon, moose, summer chum, northern pike, fall chum, sheefish, coho salmon, burbot (lush), humpback whitefish, Alaska blackish and other wild food resources.

Yukon River villagers are expected to brace for tighter restrictions this summer. All fishers are asked to cut back on harvest numbers as recently published by the 2013 ADF&G Yukon River Fisheries Outlook, “Fisherman are strongly encouraged to voluntarily reduce their chinook salmon harvest to not exceed 25 percent of their average annual harvest to help ensure adequate escapement. For example, a family that normally harvests 40 chinook salmon should consider taking only 10 this year.” Furthermore, the first pulse of chinook run will be closed, ADF&G will closely guard the second pulse and more closures are anticipated to conserve the Canada-bound stock to meet escapement goals. On the contrary, recent ADF & G Pilot Station sonar and lower river test fishing counts reported that increasing numbers of Canada-bound kings have passed the lower river. It is now June 28 and majority, if not all, local residents have only but a handful of king salmon for the coming winter.

With fewer king salmon reportedly returning, those most dependant on this precious resource on the lower river have been subject to restrictions, meaning bearing the brunt of the conservation and restriction measures imposed by the fishery management. Over the past 10 years the state and federal fishery managers have made radical changes including downsizing king salmon gillnet mesh to 7.5 inches, now it is probable that 6-inch will become standard gear. Smaller mesh gillnets such as the 6-inch (chum salmon gear) though implemented in good faith to conserve king salmon are proven killers of medium and large king salmon, only the small jacks (immature kings) will be caught along with scores of chum salmon. The Daily News Miner article by Tim Mowry dated Jan. 16, 2013 quoted James Roberts of the Tanana Tribal Council, “You’ll have to be a lot more careful for those dropout kings when you check your nets,” Roberts said. “Sometimes they’re caught right around the mouth; enough to kill them but not enough to hold them when you pull them in.”

We, as subsistence fishers, have no intention to go against our beliefs to over-harvest summer chum salmon in efforts to gather enough king salmon to dry, salt and freeze. Wanton waste is against the state and federal laws; and many river residents will be criminalized not only as salmon poachers, salmon protestors, but salmon wasters as well. Think about this, in efforts to conserve king salmon, the fishery managers are condoning the squander of one resource to save the other.

To date, ADF&G has opened the summer chum salmon commercial fishery by way of dip nets and beach seining, live incidentally caught king salmon to be released and recorded on fish tickets. Dip netting is highly effective on narrower rivers and swift water streams; beach seining is intended for coastal regions where bottom debris and snags are less common. Lower Yukon commercial fishers are reduced to a less effective and challenging mode of fishing to earn much needed cash.

Our hands are tied, one is restricted from gathering a food resource that’s rightfully given by the Creator for sustenance, and the other hand is strapped and bound making it impossible to earn sorely needed cash to make ends meet. The individual who proposed the dip net and beach seine gear obviously overlooked the crippling consequences. To date despite the commercial openers, many have earned less in comparison to using driftnets. Many fishers are alienated and frustrated and even discouraged to fish simply because of the challenges. Simply, we are facing hardships this winter with little or no king salmon for food; and very little or if any cash by way of the dip net fishery.

As king salmon-dependant people on the Lower Yukon River we demand equality and our rightful share of the king salmon as our forefathers have since time immemorial. Subsistence harvesting for food security is based on need and traditions that define our culture. The online article, Alaska Native Subsistence: A Matter of Cultural Survival by Thornton Thomas F. who quoted Nelson Frank, a Haida from Southeast Alaska who stated, “Subsistence living was not only a way of life, but it also a life enriching process. Conservation and perpetuation of subsistence resources was part of that life and mandated by traditional and law and custom.” Subsistence users take a miniscule percentage of the king salmon runs, nothing goes to waste, what is not dried is salted and frozen.

So, technically speaking what’s happening to our king salmon, and why fewer and fewer kings are returning to the Yukon River and other rivers in Alaska? Are the river subsistence and in-river commercial fisheries part of the equation? The Anchorage Daily News article posted June 25, 2012 by Richard Mauer’s article, Decline in king salmon is rooted in the sea, Alaska state biologists say, quoted Ray Beamsederfer of Cramer Fish Science in Oregon, “Ocean conditions are the primary driver in the variability in what we’re seeing, the fundamentals of the Alaska salmon system are sound. The habitat is good, the fishing is controlled, there’s no problem that’s exacerbating these up and down cycles.”

If the problem is not the mainland subsistence and commercial fisheries, indicators point to the impact of the Bering Sea bottom trawl fishery. Kevin Delaney, a consultant who headed the state division of sportfishing until 2000 stated, “The historical peak abundance of upper Cook Inlet kings came in the early 1950s before dropping off. That, drop coincided with the rise of unregulated foreign fishing outside what was then the nation’s three-mile territorial limit.” Furthermore the passage of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 halted foreign pirate fishing with the 200-mile U.S. economic zone paving way for more U.S. trawlers to cash-in in on the multibillion dollar industry.

Kevin Delaney’s observations shed some light on the impacts of Bering Sea bottom fishing, the bottom line is the Bering Sea is being depleted and overfished, and lower returning salmon statewide is a mere symptom of what is to come.

As Yup’ik/Cup’ik people, it is within our best interests to stand up and fight for our traditional and customary subsistence rights, we must make it known to the fishery managers that changes must be made at sea in order for the king salmon to rebound. A moratorium must be imposed on the pollock industry for a minimum of 10 years, or perhaps the quotas on all targeted bottom fish be drastically reduced while implementing changes on fishing gear to allow juvenile salmon to readily escape. Basically, we are competing for the same resource against a powerful economic and political influence. In all, we are fighting an uphill battle and we as Native people have not lost the war.

By remaining silent we silently submit and give consent to the ongoing injustices, we live in a democratic society, meaning we must continually stand up for ourselves and fight for what’s rightfully ours to protect our culture and heritage. Village leaders must unite and strive for our way of life which includes subsistence hunting and fishing which is necessary for food security. In closing here’s a quote that sums it all.

“Let us put our Minds Together and see what kind of Life we can build for our Children” — Sitting Bull

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