February 27, 2024

When salmon all but disappeared from western Alaska in 2021, thousands of people in the region faced disaster. Rural families lost a critical source of food. Commercial fishermen found themselves without a major income stream. And children of the native Alaska stopped learning how to catch, cut, dry and smoke fish – a tradition passed down from the time of their ancestors.

Behind the scenes, the salmon shortage has also fueled a long-running legal battle between indigenous stakeholders, the Biden administration and the state over who can fish on Alaska’s vast federal lands.

At the heart of the dispute is a provision in a 1980 federal law called the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which gives rural Alaskans priority over urban residents to fish and hunt on federal lands. Most rural families are Native, so the law is seen by some lawyers and advocates as key to protecting the rights of Alaska Natives. However, state officials believe the law has been misinterpreted to infringe on state rights by giving federal regulators authority over fisheries that belong to Alaskans.

Now, a lawsuit claims the state has overstepped its reach. Federal officials argue that state regulators have tried to wrest control of fishing along the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska, where salmon make up about half of all food produced in the region. The suit, originally filed by the Biden administration against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2022, escalated this fall when state attorneys effectively called for federal oversight of fishing in much of Alaska be terminated. Native leaders say the state’s actions threaten Alaskans across the country.

“What’s at stake is our future,” said Vivian Korthuis, chief executive officer of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a consortium of more than 50 Native nations in western Alaska, which is one of four Alaska Native groups is supporting the Biden administration in the matter. “What is at stake are our children. What is at stake are our families, our communities, our tribes.”

The lawsuit is a microcosm of how climate change is increasing the importance of fishing disputes around the world. Although tensions over salmon management in Alaska are not new, they have been exacerbated by recent marine heat waves in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska and rising temperatures in rivers such as the Yukon and Kuskokwim, where king, chum and coho salmon populations have declined. In warmer waters, salmon burn more calories. They are more likely to be malnourished and less likely to make it to their freshwater spawning grounds. With fewer fish in places like western Alaska, the question of who should manage them — and who gets access to them — has become even more pressing.

The Alaska dispute erupted in 2021 when state regulators issued fishing restrictions on the Kuskokwim that conflicted with regulations set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People along the river, who are mainly Yup’ik, were forced to follow conflicting rules about whether and when they could legally fish — adding to the pain and frustration of an already disastrous season shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and historic salmon shortages .

“We can face huge penalties and fines if we make mistakes,” Ivan M. Ivan, an elder in the Yup’ik village of Akiak, said in an affidavit.

The conflict spilled over into 2022, another year of abysmal salmon returns, when state and federal regulators again issued conflicting restrictions. Alaska officials blamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for opening fisheries prematurely, before salmon began their migration upstream, and with a “apparent lack of concern” for the conservation of the species. The Biden administration sued, arguing that the state illegally imposed its own rules in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, a federal reserve of wetlands and spruce and birch forest that surrounds more than 30 indigenous communities.

The fight played out quietly for more than a year — until September, when state attorneys filed a short which specifically asked the court to overturn legal precedent widely seen as a protection for rural, mostly indigenous families who depend on salmon. This move caused Alaska’s largest native organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives, to join three smaller Native groups who intervened on behalf of the federal government.

Those organizations are concerned that the state wants to overturn a series of court decisions, known as the Katie John incidents, which held that rural Alaskans have priority to catch food in rivers that flow through federal conservation areas, including long stretches of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Copper Rivers. Alaska Native leaders fear that removing that priority would endanger salmon populations and limit access for local residents by opening fishing to more people.

“It’s really going to put a lot of pressure on stocks,” said Erin Lynch, an Anchorage-based attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which represents the Association of Town Council Presidents.

That concern is not limited to western Alaska. Ahtna Inc., a corporation owned by indigenous shareholders in the Copper River region — about 500 miles east of the Kuskokwim — has also sided with the Biden administration. Without federal protections on the Copper River, Ahtna anglers would risk being “pushed out,” according to John Sky Starkey, an attorney representing Ahtna.

“There are only so many fish. There are only so many places [to fish],” Starkey said. “It is a real danger.”

Government officials see the issue else. They say there will be no threat of overfishing or competition between urban and rural residents, in part because rivers like the Yukon and Kuskokwim are so difficult to reach from cities like Anchorage. They note that the state law expressly protect the rights to exist of all Alaskans, including Alaska Natives. And they blame the Fed for picking a fight by taking the issue to court.

“We didn’t start this lawsuit,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “We provide for subsistence priority, and we take it seriously.”

The state’s attorneys also claim that federal policy is unfair to Alaska Natives who have moved to cities because it prohibits them from fishing with family in rural areas. Some indigenous leaders also see it as flawed, but they disagree with the state on the solution. Rather than do away with federal management, they appealed to Congress strengthen protection for Alaska Natives.

The case, now before the U.S. District Court for Alaska, is likely to heat up even more in the coming months. A ruling is expected in the spring.

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