Fish is Food
Alaska Natives have fished, hunted, and gathered wild foods as an essential part of their way of life for thousands of years. Products of nature form the basis for cultural and spiritual traditions. Fishing, hunting and gathering binds the inter-generational culture. Fish is food to rural Alaskans. Providing for subsistence uses of fish and wildlife by rural Alaskans on federal public lands in Alaska is an essential task of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Alaska Natives retained title to the land during the period of Russian occupation from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, through the influences of the Gold Rush, then World War II defense development, and eventual Alaska statehood in 1959. But in the decade after statehood, state land selections and proposed public and private development had raised concerns among Alaska Natives as to the security of their ancestral lands.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 sought to resolve Native land claims, and clear the way for state land selections to develop oil. Aboriginal title and hunting and USFWSfishing rights were extinguished in exchange for a land and monetary settlement. To avoid the pitfalls of the reservation system, the new law created Native village and regional corporations; Alaska Natives were the corporate shareholders.
What the 1971 law lacked in addressing subsistence use of natural resources, the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) made up for in a comprehensive piece of legislation that designated over 104 million acres as new or expanded conservation lands. It specifically addressed subsistence management on federal lands in Alaska. To rectify shortcomings in the 1971 law, ANILCA stated that “ . . . to fulfill the policies and purposes of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and as a matter of equity, it is necessary for the Congress…to protect and provide the opportunity for continued subsistence uses on the public lands by Native and non-Native rural residents.” It should be noted that in its development, ANILCA allocated priority on an ethnic (Native) basis. However, testimony from the state of Alaska concerning inability to implement such a priority under the state constitution prompted shifting to an ethnically neutral formulation with the rural priority.
The federal subsistence management program is responsible for fisheries primarily in inland navigable waters that flow through or adjoin federal public lands in Alaska. Bear in mind that roughly 60 percent of Alaska is designated as federal public land. The state of Alaska manages commercial and sport fisheries on all waters throughout the state, as well as state-defined subsistence fisheries on the 40-percent non-federal lands. From 1980 through late 1989, the state managed a unified program in compliance with federal requirements. However, in 1989 the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in McDowell v. State that the rural priority violated Alaska constitutional provisions for the common use of natural resources. That, and subsequent rulings have led to the present dual federal-state management system.
It is estimated that subsistence fishers, hunters, and gatherers harvest over 40 million pounds of wild foods a year in rural Alaska, with fish accounting for about 62 percent of the total. About 230 pounds of food per person per year is derived by subsistence harvest in rural Alaska.
Fished are harvested with a variety of gear based on traditional practices: gill nets, dip nets, seines, fish wheels, rod and reel, spears and jigs. Subsistence fishing for salmon is intensive during the summer as the fish migrate to freshwater spawning grounds. These are the largest fisheries of their kind in the world. The Yukon River flows 1,200 miles through interior and western Alaska from its source in Canada, over 1,300 households harvest about 50,000 Chinook salmon and over 150,000 chum salmon by gill net and fish wheel per year. In six villages near Kotzebue in northwest Alaska, 470 households harvest over 50,000 whitefish and 10,000 sheefish a year. One of these villages of about 100 households takes nearly 11,000 char a year to feed their families.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Subsistence Management provides technical fisheries management support. Our fishery monitoring program draws upon science-based methods and traditional ecological knowledge in support of subsistence fishery management—fisheries that remain vital to Alaska’s rural residents who have relied on these resources for centuries. (Lawrence S. Buklis).