Salmon-starved Alaskan villages are rejecting new chinook-preservation measures along the Yukon River, which means fewer salmon will reach Canadian spawning grounds.
Canadian fishers may face tougher regulations as a result of Alaskan scofflaws.
Meanwhile, up to 60,000 chinook will be snared in the nets of Alaskan pollock fishers and discarded this year.
“If they can be allowed to waste fish, why are they closing subsistence fishing for people who use it for food?” said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, an organization representing 56 native Alaskan tribes.
“They don’t have any other income, is the bottom line, they don’t have any other way of making a living,” said Carl Sidney, chair of the Yukon River Salmon Subcommittee.
“But in the same token, I told them, ‘Are you going to go out and kill this fish off just because you have the right to do it? How are you going to explain this to your grandchildren?’”
Yukon First Nations raised similar opposition when harvests were cut back in 2008.
“Alaska will come around,” said Sidney.
Alaskan fishers can only cast their nets in the river once the first pulse of Canadian-bound salmon has passed. Even then, they’re supposed to cut their harvest in half.
The restrictions are a desperate bid to get more chinook over the Canadian border.
Alaska shortchanged the territory by 11,700 chinook in 2008, according to provisions in the Yukon River Salmon Agreement.
Of the 63,500 Canadian-origin chinook that entered the Yukon River last summer, only 2,900 were caught by Canadian First Nations. Alaskan subsistence fishers snagged 24,400. Alaskan commercial fishers took 1,200. Only 34,000 successfully spawned.
“If (subsistence fishers) are planning to not comply this year, that’ll be a problem in terms of meeting their obligations,” said Sandy Johnston, chief of Yukon resource management for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Both Alaska and the Yukon have suspended their commercial chinook fishery. Last year, Yukon First Nations voluntarily cut their harvest by more than half.
“We had a long, hard expensive winter, the extreme high cost of living bled us of our cash resources and we plan to stock up on our traditional and customary food source no matter what,” wrote Nick P. Andrew Jr., a resident of Marshall, Alaska, in a May 9 letter to the Bristol Bay Times.
“I am not afraid, I may get fined and perhaps jail,” he wrote. “Big business cannot win us over and destroy our way of life and living.”
Villagers aren’t prepared to go to jail so much as “they’re prepared to go out for food and eat,” said Naneng.
Some “fear” disobeying regulations may further damage an already decimated salmon run, he said.
But the future of the chinook should be decided on the Bering Sea, not in Yukon River villages.
“We need salmon, pure and simple, but at the same time they need to find a way to clamp down on the pollock fishery,” said Naneng.
Pollock fishers have historically operated free from regulation, netting an average of 82,000 chinook per year—reaching an all-time high of 120,000 chinook in 2007.
In March, Alaska regulators limited the chinook bycatch to 60,000 a year—a crushing disappointment for Alaska villagers who had demanded a cap of 30,000.
Not all of Alaska’s subsistence fishers intend to disobey regulators, said Jill Klein, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.
“There’s a mixture of opinions, for sure, but people are in a hard place right now,” she said.
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