Fishing regulations on the Kuskokwim: Do they restrict Yup’ik culture or preserve it?

Mayor of Akiak, Bobby Williams, reels in his net with his daughter Margaret. (Photo by Greg Kim, KYUK – Bethel)
Mayor of Akiak, Bobby Williams, reels in his net with his daughter Margaret. (Photo by Greg Kim, KYUK – Bethel)

The Kuskokwim River has now had three fishing openings for drift gillnets, but many people in Akiak are not happy. KYUK went fishing with the mayor of Akiak to find out more about why people’s nets aren’t as full as they want them.

In between drifts, Akiak Mayor Bobby Williams checks on his set net with his younger daughter Margaret. There are no fish, but there is something else unexpected attached to his net. A warning from the Alaska State Troopers for improperly marking his buoy.  

“Could you see my name, Margaret?” Williams asks his daughter. “Look, right there. Could you see it? On the buoys? Dang!”

Williams is upset, and not just about this warning, but about the whole system of regulations governing fishing on the Kuskokwim, and the mayor is not alone.

“It’s not fun,” says Williams’ older daughter, Cynthia Ivan. “You get angry. I get angry.”

“Fishing is who we are,” Ivan says. She is a former Tribal Police Officer and she prides herself on her toughness, but her voice breaks as she talks. “It’s what makes us Native and makes us unique. And for them to take that away from us, it’s taking away from our culture. They’re taking away who we are. It’s built into our DNA system. This is who we are, and this is who we want to be.” 

Back on shore, Ivan walks around people’s fish camps asking if they’re happy with the size of their catch. Many say no. 

She finds her cousin, Kimberly Smith, cutting fish, prepping the salmon to be hung and dried.

Kimberly Smith (left) and Katie Phillip (right) cut fish with their kids while talking about the history and future of fishing in their culture. (Photo by Greg Kim, KYUK – Bethel)

Smith says that the regulations aren’t necessarily making people go hungry, but that’s not the point.

“They tell us to rely on other species of fish, but the king salmon is so much of who we are as Yup’ik people,” Smith says. “It’s them trying to assimilate us to what they think we should be.”

Smith works in youth suicide prevention, and she says that the fishing regulations make her job harder.

“Our young men can’t go out and provide for their families, so they get depressed and they go out and going into addiction, drugs, alcohol, all that,” Smith says.

The biggest complaint people have is a feeling that they’re not in control of their own lives, because fishing is such a big part of their lives. Akiak feels isolated from the regulatory process.

“Even though we’re asked about what we want, it falls on deaf ears,” Smith says.

“I’m listening to them real closely,” says Ray Born, who decides the fishing regulations on the lower Kuskokwim. “They’re a part of the land, they’re the people from here who should be able to inform me.”

Born manages the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, and he holds weekly meetings with representatives from villages along the Kuskokwim to talk about the regulations. He says that there are other forums to communicate with him, like their website, Facebook, and KYUK’s Talkline. 

But Born says that Akiak is just one of many villages that he needs to be listening to when deciding regulations. “One person’s voice is important, but it needs to be balanced with the needs of everyone up and down the river.”

Megan Leary, from Aniak, is one of the tribal representatives advising Born every week. She says that she understands the feelings in Akiak.

“You feel like a part of you is taken away when someone tells you you can’t do something you’ve been doing your whole entire life, your parents, your whole family has been doing,” Leary says.

But Leary wants to keep fishing her whole life, and she wants her family to be able to fish.

“I think about my son,” Leary pauses. “And being able to bring him out and letting him do the same things my parents did with us growing up. We’re having to give up right now so that in the future our kids and people’s grandkids, they can have the same opportunities as us.”

Akiak Elder, Lillian Lliaban, remembers a time sacrifice paid off: “Twenty years ago, they closed the moose down for five years and people were yapping this and that, ‘we’re gonna starve, blah blah blah.’ And the moose is everywhere now.” 

Lliaban used to be against the regulations, but she’s changed her tune. 

“We have to think about the future,” Lliaban says.

In 2013, the king salmon run crashed on the Kuskokwim with only 36,823 making it to spawning grounds. This year, federal managers and tribal representatives are trying to rebuild the run by getting 110,000 king salmon up the river to spawn.