Kuskokwim Fishermen Set Sights on Co-Management

Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fisheries Commission steering committee members hear from AVCP attorney Sky Starkey. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)
Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fisheries Commission steering committee members hear from AVCP attorney Sky Starkey. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)

Efforts to establish tribal co-management of Kuskokwim salmon are slowly progressing. A steering committee is in Bethel to sketch out the future of who regulates the river. Kuskokwim fishermen are eager to be managers, instead of simply advisers.

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10 members of a steering committee met for the first time in Bethel Thursday. Fisherman from Nikolai at the headwaters down to the mouth began to define what they want to see in tribal co-management. Committee member Bob Aloysius from Kalskag emphasized tribes need to be more than simply advisers.

“Recommendations to go a point, and nothing happens. We need to have authority to implement, maintain, monitor, and enforce whatever we come up with,” said Aloysius.

The steering committee for the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fisheries Commission is being facilitated by the Association of Village Council Presidents and Tanana Chiefs Conference, building off of tribal resolutions passed last year. Kuskokwim king salmon runs have been in decline for several years and unprecedented restrictions have hit subsistence fishermen hard. That’s led to conflicts among communities along different parts of the river. Jacob Black from Napakiak said for tribal management to succeed, everyone has to be on board.

“Our elders used to say, there may be a lot of people on the Kuskokwim or Alaska, but if you’re not united, you’re never going to accomplish nothing, that’s 100 percent true, to me. Right now we are not united,” said Black.

The full commission someday would include representatives from all Kuskokwim tribes choosing to take part. The smaller steering committee is trying to determine next steps and outline the mission and goal. They elected Bob Aloysius and Mike Williams as interim co-chairs while more members are expected to join. The long-term vision in some capacity includes equal footing among tribes, state and federal managers.

In the meantime, a federal demonstration project for co-management could build capacity for the change. Gene Peltola Junior, the assistant regional director for the Federal Office of Subsistence Management described a possible new committee under the federal subsistence board. He says if it’s structured properly it could have more input.

“But if they were to give it weighted opinion, or whatever you call it, I truly feel the local individual would have a lot more say in management than they have had in the past,” said Peltola Junior.

Sky Starkey, an attorney who works for AVCP presented a vision of how the committee could push the boundary of the law in order to maximize co-management potential.

To give it teeth, Starkey says tribes should seek broad application of a section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, that governs subsistence on federal lands. That would force the federal board to defer to their committee’s plan, unless the proposal fails to meet strict criteria.

“Trying to use that and trying to strengthen it so the recommendations carry a lot of weight,” said Starkey.

One idea is to create a new regional advisory council that replaces the fish responsibilities of two current regional committees. In the very preliminary conception, tribes would make comprehensive management plans and take responsibility for researching and monitoring fish, while giving traditional knowledge equal footing.

The meeting continues Friday at the cultural center in Bethel. A meeting for Yukon tribes is scheduled for next week in Fairbanks.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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