By Jenny Neyman
The summer of 2015 was a tough one for many anglers on the Kenai River, with a conservation concern over king salmon prompting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the river to king fishing throughout the June early run and for most of the July late run. When the ban was lifted July 24, as it looked like kings were reaching their optimum escapement goals after all, many happy anglers took to the river.
But not residents of Ninilchik seeking their federal subsistence salmon harvest. They continued to sit high and dry.
The Ninilchik Tribal Council contends that the federal government’s slow response and inefficient processes denied them their federally mandated subsistence salmon harvest in the Kenai River last summer, and nearly cost them their harvest in the Kasilof River, as well.
The council filed suit Oct. 23 against representatives of the Federal Subsistence Board, the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to provide an opportunity for their members to conduct their subsistence harvest allotted to them by law under the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act.
“The tribe is really trying to have their subsistence rights, which are guaranteed them by ANILCA, recognized so that they can fish and get allocations of salmon that they are under federal law entitled to. So the lawsuit itself is more of an injunctive case seeking to ensure that in this upcoming fishing season, in 2016, the tribe is able to do this,” said Anna Crary, co-council representing the tribe in the case, with Landye Bennett Blumstein law firm in Anchorage.
The state of Alaska doesn’t recognize a rural-resident priority on fish and game resources, so the federally mandated subsistence programs are conducted on federally mandated lands and waters in the state. On the Kenai Peninsula, residents of Ninilchik, Cooper Landing and Hope qualify for federal subsistence harvests, and are allowed to conduct those activities on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. On the Kenai River, that puts them near the Russian River area.
In the past, the Ninilchik residents have utilized hooks and bait or dip nets, but say those methods haven’t met their subsistence needs. In January, the Federal Subsistence Board approved the council’s request to operate a community gillnet in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, over the objections of federal and state fishery managers who said the nets would be indiscriminate and could catch sensitive species — such as kings or trout — even though sockeye were to be the target.
The federal subsistence fishing season runs from June 15 to Aug. 15. On May 27 the tribe submitted an operational plan for the community subsistence gillnet fisheries in the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, as it is required to do. On June 9, refuge in-season fishery manager Jeffry Anderson told the tribe he was preparing an emergency closure of the fishery to conserve the struggling early run kings. The closure was issued June 17.
On June 30, the Kenai’s early king run met its optimal escapement goal. Both the refuge and Alaska Department of Fish and Game continued their fishing restrictions into July to protect the July late run of kings, as well.
The conservation measure itself isn’t the source of the complaint, Crary said.
“The fact that even when other sport fisheries were liberalized the subsistence fishery remained closed,” she said.