Federal Proposals Could Drastically Alter Yukon River Salmon Fishery
The Yukon River might be frozen, but the fight for the shrinking number of salmon that will be swimming up the river in five months is already heating up.
Though the new net size regulation pertains to the entire river, fishermen on the lower river feel it is aimed at them because it was proposed by upriver users.
"People are still upset from the last Board of Fisheries meeting, and that's why certain proposals were put in," said Jill Klein, executive director for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. "I think some of the proposals were definitely put in as a result of frustration. People in the lower river felt targeted."
Now, it's fishermen on the middle and upper river who are being targeted by proposals from downriver fishermen, who are accusing upriver fishermen of catching king salmon to feed sled dogs and selling large amounts of fish illegally under federal customary trade regulations.
A proposal that would prohibit fish wheels in the middle and upper Yukon while allowing them elsewhere on the river is "totally uncalled for," according to James Kelly of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon.
"This sounds like Mountain Village working group has something against the Upper Yukon Region," he wrote in response to the proposal to ban fish wheels in his region. "What will come next? Totally restrict these two districts so Mountain Village can enjoy fishing at the expense of others?"
Likewise, a proposal to ban the use of subsistence-caught salmon for dog food is a blatant attack on the subsistence lifestyle of fishermen on the middle and upper Yukon, where the majority of dog teams are located, said Richard Burnham of Kaltag.
"The use of dog teams is woven into the very fabric and history of this state," Burnham wrote in response to the proposal. "Fishing for, drying and feeding salmon to sled dogs was and is as important to the subsistence lifestyle of people along the Yukon and its tributaries as any other activity.
"My feeling is that as long as there is still a sled dog pulling a dog sled somewhere along the Yukon River, it should be able to eat a salmon taken from the Yukon River," he concluded.
One issue that likely will be addressed at the Federal Subsistence Board meeting is customary trade, the sale of subsistence-caught fish, a practice which some fishermen say is growing in light of commercial fishing closures. Customary trade is allowed under federal regulations as long as it does not constitute a "significant commercial enterprise," a term that is not defined.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently conducted an undercover investigation into the illegal sale of salmon on the Yukon River that revealed some subsistence fishermen are selling hundreds of pounds of smoked salmon strips for as much as $35 per pound, generating thousands of dollars in profit.
A proposal submitted by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Advisory Council would limit customary trade to no more than $750 per household and require a permit and sales records. That proposal has the support of the Department of Fish and Game but not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.