At Thursday’s Yupiit Nation fish forum in Bethel, long-term planning for tribal fishery co-management took a backseat to the anxiety and uncertainly surrounding the current king salmon restrictions.
At the time of year when they would normally be at fish camp filling their racks with king salmon, a few dozen fisherman sat in a windowless former bowling alley talking about restrictions. Phillip Peter is from Akiachak.
“Those elders used to tell us not to idle, sitting around in our village when fish are coming in. I tell you the truth, hunger has no law,” said Peter.
Tim Andrew is Natural Resources Director for the Association of Village Council Presidents. He said people are seeing high numbers from the Bethel Test Fishery, but they aren’t hearing from managers on how the run is building.
“People have got to know. If they don’t know, they look at their fish rack, they look at the needs of their family, they say to hell with it, we’re going to fish, we need to feed our family,” said Andrew.
The prospect of famine came up frequently and local managers were grilled by participants, including Ed Johnstone with the Quinault Indian Nation and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Speaking before a panel that included state manager Aaron Poetter, Johnstone compared the situation on the Kuskokwim to a massacre.
“I was just looking up all the massacres. A whole list on the internet of massacres of Indian people over time. This has the makings of being a massacre. Poetter: ‘I’ve got to say that’s out of line, …that’s absolutely not the intent…’ I’m getting to the severity of the question. If you’re not hearing these people, you’re doing an injustice,” said Johnstone.
At times, the testimony even referred to the possibility of violence. One woman was afraid her son and some young men would go fishing with guns in the boat. And a man heard people talking about shooting down airplanes with fish managers aboard.
After countless stories of subsistence fisherman growing restless as the closure nears 4 weeks, there was some reason for optimism. Brian McCaffery said the restrictions appear to be letting many fish swim past Bethel, and that could mean more harvest for locals through a special cultural and social permit.
“The preliminary numbers are looking positive, it’s still too early to know if that run will continue, or if it will drop off quickly like it does in some years. But at this point, what I can say is that I’m entertaining the possibility of early next week possibly bumping that up,” said McCaffery.
McCaffery said the species mix is including more and more chums and sockeye. A state-run dipnet fishery could begin next week, and McCaffery says even a 6-inch gillnet opening for chum and sockeye may be possible late next week for the lower river.
Still, in a year of unprecedented closures, managers are having a tough time determining exactly what the Bethel Test Fishery numbers mean. Research biologist Kevin Shaberg says although fish are moving past Bethel, they’ve never had a complete closure before and that makes it hard to come to any conclusions at the moment.
“We’re not able to actually track what the run timing is quite as well this year, so we have to be a little cautious about how we interpret that 225 today and what we think that means for the end of the season,” said Shaberg.
Akiak’s Ivan M. Ivan summed up the sentiments of many in the room.
“Consider your mathematics…I don’t quite understand about the mathematics that we discussed. But please allow us to fish,” said Ivan.
The Yupiit Nation meeting continues Friday at the ONC multipurpose building.