ANCHORAGE (CN) - An Alaska Native tribe says the federal government dragged its heels in setting up subsistence fisheries and closed the Kenai River to all but Chinook salmon sport fishermen, causing the tribe to all but miss its federally mandated take.
The Ninilchik Traditional Council filed its suit in Alaska Federal Court against representatives of the Federal Subsistence Board, the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Oct. 23. The council contends that authorities overseeing the state subsistence fishery failed to provide an opportunity for their members to harvest their annual allotted quantity and species of salmon provide for by law.
According to the council's complaint, The Federal Subsistence Board regulates federal subsistence under the purview of the Interior Department and is composed of regional directors from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service, and three public members appointed by the secretaries of the Interior and the USDA. Two of those represent rural subsistence users and one is the board chairman.
The council says the 2015 closure of the newly authorized subsistence gillnet fishery on the Kenai River violated the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act The act gives priority to rural residents including designated Alaska Native tribes, subsistence opportunities on federal lands and waters over that of commercial and sport fishing interests.
Up until the 2015 season, council members could only rely on the long-authorized methods of hook, bait and dipnet - which the council says have not met their subsistence needs.
This past January, after much contentious debate, the board approved the council's request for community-set gillnets for subsistence users on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. Catch from both nets would be included in their total-season harvest limit of 1,000 late-run Chinook salmon, 2,000 pink salmon, 3,000 Coho salmon, and 4,000 sockeye salmon.
A gillnet is a fishing net hung vertically that traps fish by their gills.
The Kenai River fishery is located with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The board gave the refuge in-season manager Jeffry Anderson full authority to close or open fisheries based on numbers of each species of fish passing through federal and state-maintained escapements. The Kenai is one of the most fished rivers in Alaska with sport anglers, commercial operations and subsistence fishermen all vying for what has at times been, depending on the species and the year, a dwindling resource.
During prior public meetings debating whether to allow the council's gillnets, Anderson and other biologists argued that gillnets indiscriminately take fish and may cause harm to some species that have yet to recover and are not legally fished.
Despite Anderson's concerns, the board found no conservation concerns and voted to allow the council's gillnets for subsistence fishing on both rivers - a move the Interior and Agriculture secretaries signed off on earlier this year.
But just before the subsistence-fishing season - just two months long, between June 15 and Aug. 15 - ramped up, Anderson told the council he was instituting an emergency closure of the Kenai River and that the closure would bar the gillnet from being set up. Anderson cited the need to conserve early-run Chinook salmon as the reason for the closure, the council says in its complaint.