By Jenny Neyman
On federal property in Alaska, rural residents get first crack at fishing and hunting activities. But though they get subsistence priority on about 60 percent of land in the state, what they don’t always have is a strong voice in how subsistence activities are managed, said Greg Encelewski, past president of the Ninilchik Tribal Council and member of the council’s subsistence committee.
That’s the message the Ninilchik Tribal Council had for Interior Department officials as the agency studies the federal subsistence program in Alaska. The Interior Department announced in October that it would conduct a review of the complex and often controversial program, taking input from rural communities granted subsistence hunting and fishing access on federal lands in the state; the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, whose sphere of hunting and fishing management overlaps the Federal Subsistence Board’s jurisdiction; and anyone else caring to chime in.
Residents of Ninilchik, Hope, Cooper Landing and some outlying areas near Homer, being deemed “rural,” are allowed to participate in subsistence hunts and fisheries on federally owned land on the Kenai Peninsula, such as a winter ice fishery on Tustumena Lake, a fish wheel in the Kasilof River, a moose hunt in the Caribou Hills surrounding Ninilchik, and dipnetting and rod-and-reel fishing on the upper Kenai River.
That access is important, but Encelewski said the Ninilchik Tribal Council would like to see rural residents also have more say in how it’s managed, he said. That was the main input Ninilchik residents had when they met with Interior Department officials.
“The (Federal Subsistence Board) doesn’t necessarily get right down to the actual subsistence users as much as they should. The chair doesn’t seem to be representing the people, at least it felt that way to a lot of us,” Encelewski said.
The Federal Subsistence Board sets subsistence regulations for federal land in the state — deciding which communities qualify as rural and setting the parameters by which those residents can access the fish and wildlife resources on federal public lands. The board takes input from regional advisory councils, though many rural residents contend the recommendations of the council don’t carry as much weight with the board as they should.
The makeup of the board also has been called into question, with rural residents saying the board is too bureaucratic, with too many agency representatives as board members and not enough rural representation. The board chair, Mike Fleagle, was previously the chair of the Alaska Board of Game, which sets state hunting regulations.
“The federal board is made up of heads of different departments. The (regional advisory councils) are made up of the actual users — people who have been around and about and using it,” said Encelewski, who also is a member of the Southcentral Subsistence Regional Advisory Council. “It used to be they gave deference to the RACs, but that hasn’t exactly been the case in the last few years on some issues. There’s been quite a few that our tribe and others in the areas have recommended that (the board has) gone the other way on.”
Encelewski said Ninilchik wasn’t pushing for the review, but since the community was given an opportunity to help make the federal subsistence program better, it took it.
“We didn’t go out soliciting change. On those grounds there were a lot of issues that we felt needed changing. One of the big issues was the chair of the Federal Subsistence Board, deference to the RACs and a procedure that changes the way they actually listen and take testimony and listen to the people, basically,” Encelewski said.
The review brings up the decades-old argument surrounding federal subsistence in Alaska — that the state manages fish and wildlife resources with a goal of maximum sustained yield and equal access to all Alaskans, while federal lands are managed with a rural preference.
“I feel that we’re all Alaskans and the constitution of Alaska gives us equal access and opportunity to the resources of the state. Well, the federal government decided that wasn’t good enough,” said Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee.
It creates a double standard where the interests and access of rural and nonrural users collide over the same resources.
“I felt there was plenty of opportunity under the existing regulations, but now you’re looking at subsistence users getting their own season and methods and means to catch,” Crawford said. “Where I’m restricted during king salmon season, for example, to having only a singe hook and no bait, at times they can use bait and treble hooks.”
On the Kenai Peninsula, the tug of war over federal subsistence access versus state-managed regulations plays out in many ways. On the upper Kenai River, for example, rural subsistence users can fish in areas and through means not open to other anglers, including dipnetting for salmon at the Russian River Falls.
On the Kasilof River, Ninilchik residents have been granted permission to install a fish wheel to harvest salmon — a method of fishing that is banned in state regulations. And subsistence hunts often extend hunting season for rural residents beyond what is allowed for nonrural hunters.
Crawford said the dichotomy seems more striking on the Kenai Peninsula, where there is less economic and geographic distinction between rural and urban areas than in the Bush. But overall, he doesn’t like the idea that some Alaskans are treated differently than others.
“Anything on the road system, in my mind, I think we’re stretching the rural designation. Is there history there? A hundred years ago were people catching fish and shooting moose and bears and living off the land? Sure they were. But so were the people living in Anchorage, Soldotna and Kenai,” Crawford said. “Go to Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue or all the little places in between there where gas is so expensive and milk is 10 bucks a gallon. Those people want to live that traditional lifestyle, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. At the same time, I’m an Alaska resident also, so don’t limit my access to those resources, which, as a general rule, the state doesn’t do.”
Having two sets of standards, rules and management principles can be confusing, at best. At worst, it has the potential to breed resentment between rural and nonrural residents, and could negatively affect resources, Crawford said.
“Federal regulations supercede state regulations on federal land, and sometimes these rules are made in disregard to the past efforts of fisheries and wildlife management that the state has done,” Crawford said. “Here we have potential conservation issues on the Kenai Peninsula, and we’re giving a minority user group priority.”
Encelewski said the numbers of fish and game rural subsistence users harvest on the peninsula are so small they aren’t hurting anything.
“The subsistence user takes less than 1 percent. It’s a minute amount, but they make a huge, big deal about it,” he said.
In 2009, subsistence fishermen from Hope, Cooper Landing and Ninilchik harvested a total of 962 salmon in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. Subsistence dipnet fisheries at the Russian River Falls yielded 710 fish, dipnetting in the Kenai below river Mile 48 resulted in 30 fish, and subsistence dipnetting in the Kasilof River netted seven fish. Rod-and-reel subsistence fishing at the falls resulted in a take of 144 fish, and 71 caught in the Moose Range Meadows. In 2007, rural subsistence fisheries in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers resulted in 747 fish, and in 2008, 1,730 salmon were harvested.
Crawford said it isn’t the harvest numbers that concern him, it’s that federal regulations can trump state management decisions.
“No, I don’t think fish runs are going to get to the point where we have an issue over that, as far as could commercial or sportfishing shut down and only allow subsistence fishing,” he said. “But, for example, here, the state and other user groups have managed that (Kenai resident fish) fishery in a way that promotes catch and release, and all that could get thrown out the window.”
Federal subsistence decisions could be adverse to state management strategies, Crawford said.
“The feds could decide a fishery is healthy over the state stance and they can put a season on it as they see fit,” Crawford said.
He cited moose hunting in the mountains around Cooper Landing as an example. Subsistence hunters may only take a few moose a year, but they’re allowed to hunt later in the season than nonrural hunters are, at a time when state biologists have decided moose need to be left alone, because bulls are in a weakened state once the rut begins.
“Here we have a problem in (state game management units) 15A and B of a declining moose population, but they’re going against what state biologists are saying. Let’s say they only kill one, but how many more going to die in the winter from being chased around the mountain by hunters?” Crawford said.
Encelewski counters that the Federal Subsistence Board does consider the health of resources when making decisions on allowable methods and means of harvest, and rural users certainly don’t want the health of those resources to be jeopardized, either. However, he does take issue with some of the Federal Subsistence Board’s decisions, but for different reasons.
Part of the importance of subsistence hunting and fishing for rural residents is economic, but another large element is tradition. With that in mind, the Ninilchik Tribal Council would prefer residents be allowed to subsistence fish with the means they traditionally used — gillnets.
The Federal Subsistence Board turned down their request to use gillnets, and instead approved Ninilchik residents access to dipnetting and rod-and-reel fishing in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, a winter ice fishery in Tustumena Lake and a fish wheel in the Kasilof. Traditionally, Ninilchik residents made use of fish streams closer to home than the Kasilof, and especially the Kenai, but the Federal Subsistence Board can only grant rural subsistence access on U.S.-owned land in Alaska, which does not extend to Ninilchik-area streams.
“To us, it’s a tradition, it’s part of your heritage, your custom. It’s a social thing. It’s part of your livelihood. It’s a total utilization, total involvement by the family. For them to tell us, ‘We’ll give you a subsistence use through a hook and line,’ that’s a joke,” Encelewski said. “That’s not how we subsisted. We used nets. It’s a lifestyle — our lifestyle and our tradition is being taken away from us. We’re being forced into a new way. That’s not what people did. Not back here.”
From Encelewski’s perspective, it shouldn’t matter what means of harvest are utilized, as long as it doesn’t cause some sort of substantial damage. If the Federal Subsistence Board is going to grant Ninilchik residents subsistence access to 500 cohos on the Kasilof River, for example, why should it matter whether they are harvested with a fish wheel, dipnets, rods and reels or a gillnet? Five hundred fish are 500 fish, no matter how they’re caught, he said.
“The whole intention was to settle on an amount of fish to provide for the needs of the people, and we’re supposed to have a priority for getting those fish, and it’s supposed to be a reasonable means for getting it,” Encelewski said. “The best thing would be the right to fish like we used to, and that’s not going to happen. We wanted to put a net in the Kenai, but basically they opposed it. The most simple thing is if we could fish and get the hell out of the way.”
Encelewski said Ninilchik isn’t planning on proposing additional ways and means requests for now, such as again attempting permission for gillnetting. Instead, the community plans to make better use of the access already granted. To that end, the tribe plans to construct a fish wheel in the Kasilof River next summer, and start utilizing the Tustumena Lake ice fishery.
“We haven’t participated as much as we’d like. We plan on doing that,” he said.
Crawford said he hopes the subsistence review results in clearer decision-making standards that are applied consistently across the state, and that federal and state management are brought more closely in line. While there are some benefits to having federally protected land in the state, it could be better managed, he said.
“The constitution of Alaska protects all of us equally as Alaskans. The federal government is going to supercede that with their own rules, just put the state rules and regulations and constitution aside,” he said. “Am I glad that Skilak Lake will never be lined with condominiums? Absolutely, because it’s in the National Wildlife Refuge — at least, hopefully that never happens. There’s good things with the refuge. It’s just there’s differences in how it could be managed. The main point of it being a place where wildlife is a priority.”