Bethel resident Sarah Jasper got choked up saying, “I get emotional when I think about what happened this summer.”
Jasper recounted the subsistence fishing closures last summer on the Kuskokwim River when her son’s salmon net was seized by law enforcement. He was fishing during an unprecedented 12 day subsistence closure for Kings.
“When we fish for the winter, we only put away what we need,” Jasper said. “Please have a heart and let us eat off the land, what we were raised with.”
A handful of people spoke in Yup’ik but many bi-lingual speakers used English to get their points across. And many spoke about their trepidation going into this fishing season after last year’s disaster.
Jackson Williams from Akiak told Murkowski that his tribe abided by the state’s 7 day closure, but when they extended it five more days, his elders told the village to go fish.
“They were craving to eat that food,” Williams said. “All of us I think that were born in the Kuskokwim River, when [the Kings] first come up, we crave for them… to eat, because you know, that’s our number one food.”
People said they didn’t want to take the blame for the decline in the King salmon runs on the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers and shouldn’t be the ones carrying the burden of conservation. Several voiced their concern with King salmon by-catch, including Martin Nicolai of Kwethluk.
“Last year, the Government was fining and citing our fishermen who were fishing out of desperation,” Nicolai said. “Why can’t they do the same thing down at the high seas when they are catching the fish that are supposed to come up our rivers?”
Angie Whitman choked up when she spoke about it.
“There is an incredibly lack of justice with one group legally allowed to waste salmon, given the term by-catch,” Whitman said. “And another group dealing with severe restrictions being issued citations, made to appear in court, and pay fines.”
People also testified about their frustration with state management.
“We’ve been trying to get help from where ever,” Williams said. “Department of Fish and Game, Fish Commissioners on the state’s side, you know, but nobody is listening to us. Nobody.”
Several people spoke about the need for tribal co-management and greater tribal involvement. Steven Maxie of Napaskiak suggested leaving the state out altogether.
“We need to work government to government so we can co-management it,” Maxie said. “Leave [the] State alone; State can work under us.”
Even some Bristol Bay residents flew to Bethel for the hearing, including Dennis Andrews Sr. who implored Murkowski to take everyone’s testimony seriously.
“It’s our dinner table, even the water’s our dinner table, and on the land it’s still our dinner table,” Andrews Sr. said. “Berries, game, moose, you name it, birds that come in to nesting, it’s our dinner table for thousands of years back up to today.”
Murkowski made no promises and reiterated the reason for the hearing was to form record for the Senate. She said she clearly got the picture that everyone there was dissatisfied with the way things are. She said the hearing will help her explain what’s going on to her colleagues in D.C.
“It’s difficult for me to convey so many of your thoughts, so the fact that you have shared them on the record here today is extraordinarily important,” Murkowski said.
Another similar hearing is tentatively scheduled for May in the Ahtna region.