Facing the possibility of a total closure of the King salmon fishery this summer and new dip-net openings, people from the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta are speaking up on all sides of the issue.
This year is the first time that king salmon fishing in the Kuskokwim drainage could be closed for the entirety of the king run. Many oppose the new regulations though some support the closure. Introducing a dip-net opener in mid June has many confused since dip-netting in the Lower Kuskokwim is not a traditional fishing method. Nunapichuk elder Natalia Berlin said she’s skeptical of dip-nets.
“They probably won’t catch a lot of fish. Do people catch fish with dip-nets around here? It’s gong to be hard.” Says Berlin.
Due to low king counts last year with escapement as low as 48-thousand, Alaska Department of Fish & Game officials and advisory groups agree that the fishing season will likely start closed to King Salmon May 20th. This has some local subsistence fishers anxious about the possibility of not being able to stock up enough salmon for winter. Napakiak elder Adam Miller says he’s frustrated.
“I don’t like the idea of a closure, we used to fish back in the day with no closures. We had no white people bossing us around.” Says Miller
He said kings were more plentiful in the old days and many thought they would never see the day that king fishing would be closed indefinitely throughout a whole season.
The closure has some supporters though. Nunapichuk elder John Berlin says modern pressure on the ecosystem requires conservation for future generations.
“If the animals we use had no one watching over them, making sure they are doing good, they would have already been gone.” Says Berlin
Berlin says people should be adaptable. He recalls a similar situation with Moose hunting in the Kusko a few years back. There was a lot of opposition to the closure, after a half-dozen years of closures moose numbers grew to a point that openings were allowed again. He compares king salmon to jack-rabbits. He remembers a time when jack-rabbits were plentiful in his area.
“There were many jack rabbits in our area, but when we started using snow machines, they were able to chase and hunt them till there was almost none and they haven’t recovered.”
He says he can’t oppose Alaska Department of Fish and Game because he believes they saying only restrict the harvest of animals that are in danger of disappearing.
Some Yup’ik subsistence fishers are preparing to harvest other species of salmon. Tuntutuliak elder James Charles says the Yup’ik word for fish, “neqa”, shows that all fish are food.
“The Yup’ik word for fish can mean “food”, be it chum, king, red or silver, its all food. We never caught a lot of kings when I was a boy because there were no king nets to buy. Those short nets were all made by hand, so they mostly fished for fresh king meals in the spring if they weren’t too late. After that, people would fish mainly for chum. That was our food from fall through winter.”
Nunapichuk elder Natalia Chaliak says during this challenging time, it’s important to remember Yup’ik cultural morals about helping one another.
“Let me tell you about my grandfather. When my grandfather was old and could not do much, he used to spend his winters weaving short nets. He used to complete several nets, sometimes five. Then in spring, he would give them to his grandchildren. That’s how people were in the old days.”
The Federal Subsistence Board meets in Anchorage April 15th through 17th to decide on whether to limit king fishing to local residents only *if a surplus of king Salmon return to the Kuskokwim River. But officials estimate a surplus return is unlikely.