The Battle for Fish and Survival Along the Yukon

The failure of chum salmon to run in Alaskan waters last fall pitted Indian subsistence fishermen against the government

EARLY in November of 1993, Art Henry of Beaver, Alaska, stepped from his log cabin into the frigid Arctic dusk and plodded quietly through the snow-covered yard where his sled dogs lay chained. Somberly, Mr. Henry examined his 35 dogs and wondered what he might do to save them.

``There was little to feed them,'' recalls Mr. Henry, an Athabascan Indian who runs a winter trap line along the Yukon River, in one of the nation's most isolated regions. ``I didn't want them to starve.''

Almost every year of his 30-year career as a trapper, Beaver native Henry says, he has used chum salmon as dog food. Sometimes he has relied on the salmon to feed himself, too, but this year was different.

This year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the Yukon River and all of its tributaries to subsistence fishing for the fall run of chum salmon. It gave little warning, but then it had little warning itself that 3 million chum salmon would fail to show up in Alaskan rivers. With but a few vague historic exceptions, the chum have always returned.

The chum closure of Sept. 3, 1993 wrote yet another bitter chapter in what has become known as the ``subsistence battle.'' Through its 35-year history, this battle has pitted the state against the federal government and urban dweller against rural dweller.

With each episode the resolve of the Indians has strengthened. This last chapter was no exception. ``They're accommodating commercial interests, not Natives,'' says Paul Williams, a man who derives almost 100 percent of his family's meat from harvesting game. ``They don't care if they eliminate us from the face of the earth. It's time natives unite, get mad, and show our strength.''

The closure of the Yukon affected about 50 villages along the 1,200-mile stretch of the river that is in the United States. It came at a time when families were erecting fish wheels, staking nets, and gearing up for the last major opportunity to put away their winter supply of food.

In recent years the average total subsistence catch of fall chum on the Yukon River has been about 130,000 fish; the run is a resource Indians and biologists always expect.

``We were expecting 734,000 chum salmon adults to be returning to the Yukon,'' says Russ Holder, a management biologist for the Upper Yukon Area. ``It was very surprising when we counted only 220,000 fall chum. We need a minimum escapement of 400,000 to ensure future returns.''

``Nothing in recent years suggested we'd be confronted with such catastrophic conditions,'' Holder continues. ``Unfortunately, it looks as though we may have to initiate some type of subsistence control this coming fall. It just doesn't look good at all.''

Chum is the third-most-harvested species of salmon in Alaska, behind pink and red salmon. In western Alaska, chum has long been a staple of Indian subsistence, and dependence in some areas grew in the late 1800s as dog teams became the major form of transportation.

Portions of the catch fed families while other portions were bartered to stores, which in turn sold them as dog food. As snowmobiles replaced dog teams in the 1960s, the commercial chum fisheries grew. But in some villages, chum remains a key source of income and allows families to make boat payments, buy gasoline, guns, and fish nets used for subsistence living.

``Life would be a real problem for many villagers if it weren't for the chum run,'' says Will Mayo, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. TCC, as it is better known, represents about 50 interior villages. As a consortium, it has clout. As a result, when Mr. Mayo speaks, politicians tend to listen. ``These villagers need chum salmon,'' Mayo says. ``They are the bread and butter of many village families.''

Disappearance theories

According to Mr. Holder, officials have been searching for the cause of this ecological disaster. One theory is that the bitter cold winter of 1989 froze chum fry and affected food sources in spawning streams. Biologists say that would explain the low returns of four-year-old fish last year and five-year-old fish this year. But it doesn't explain why other species of salmon that hatched during the cold have not disappeared.

Another theory suggests that the millions of chum released in recent years from Japanese hatcheries are competing with Alaskan chum for the same food sources. Yet another theory suggests that the trawlers fishing for pollock and cod off Alaska's coast diminished the chum fishery.

This past year, their by-catch (fish that are caught and discarded) included nearly 200,000 chum salmon. Although officials are attempting to reduce this number, the trawler by-catch theory, they say, doesn't explain the chum's disappearance.

The Indians have pondered the failure as well. Elders remember a great crash in the 1920s, recorded by then-famous Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal archdeacon, explorer, and author.

``This year, dog-food was exceedingly scarce,'' Stuck wrote. ``The salmon run, upon which dog-food entirely and man-food largely depends, had been a partial failure in the previous summer. During the early summer, when the king salmon ran, the Yukon had been persistently bank-full. The later runs of silver and dog-salmon scarce came at all - for what mysterious reason no one knows - and the whole fish catch had been the least within recent recollection.''

After hearing the villagers' concerns, TCC president Mayo sought an injunction against the state to allow two 24-hour subsistence fishing periods on the rivers to help families needing fish for winter food.

Mayo and other Indian leaders placed at least part of the blame for the chum disappearance on the large-scale salmon fisheries at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, which they believe are intercepting a substantial number of chum bound for northern villages. Mayo also said that fishing for chum was allowed along the Yukon in Canada this past year through what he calls a ``gentleman's agreement.'' ``The only group not allowed to fish,'' Mayo says, ``were natives along the Yukon.''

Though Mayo lost his suit, many heard his words. In a September 1993 letter to Gov. Walter Hickel (Ind.) of Alaska, Mayo wrote, ``All I can say is that when a government corners its citizens into criminal activity in order to feed their children, then civil disobedience is bound to result.''

Predictably, dozens of fish wheels churned the waters, scooping up an occasional salmon despite the closure. Jonathan Solomon, a longtime Ft. Yukon tribal leader, says he couldn't remember Athabascans ever joining in such a protest. The protest was widespread, and supporters included several unlikely allies.

Support for native fishermen

``People are very angry and it's easy to see why,'' says Edgar Blatchford, an Alaskan Indian and Governor Hickel's commissioner of community and regional affairs. ``We've spent a lot of money to help establish a fishing industry in other parts of the state, but when you look at these villages - at the one resource they have - we haven't done much.''

Another ally included Roger Huntington, a man Hickel appointed to the Alaska Game Board. He, too, criticized the state's management of the Yukon River.

Active protesters included Katherine Peter, a Ft. Yukon resident and book author who generally maintains a low profile. But in her quiet, unobtrusive way, the matriarch of the Gwich'in tribe made a profoundly simple declaration. ``I will go,'' she said. By that Ms. Peter meant she would unlawfully fish for chum salmon. ``Subsistence,'' Peter explains, ``means so much to us as a people.''

``Once subsistence is used as a scapegoat, it will be easier for the state to use it again and again, chipping away until nothing is left,'' adds Paul Williams, the trapper. ``The ban represents the beginning of the end.''

Williams's work epitomizes the subsistence lifestyle. In the winter, he traps in temperatures that dip to minus 60 degrees F. He spends summers preparing his fish camp, where he nets king salmon and other species, including chum salmon when permitted.

For Williams, fishing at his summer fish camp is a family affair. It's the family's life, just as farming and ranching are for others.

Typically, the Williamses journey 30 miles by boat up the Yukon to a campsite near White Eye. There they erect several walled tents and refurbish their smokehouse. Several weeks later, Paul drops his nets. Life-long experiences have taught him which currents and which eddies are apt to funnel fish on their way to small tributaries upstream.

When the fish are moving, the Williamses work 18 to 20 hours a day. Some salmon exceed 50 pounds, and the work of extracting them from nets and slicing the meat to a size appropriate for hanging and drying is exhausting. But the venture also represents a time of social activity to which relatives and friends travel, often from great distances.

In the evening, friends gather around campfires to watch as the Yukon briefly swallows the summer sun. And they cut fish. Around the clock, they slice long strips of salmon, which they drape over branches and willow sticks cut to support the masses of rich, succulent meat the river usually provides. Beneath the sun-dried salmon, smudge fires drive flies away.

About 150 miles downriver, much the same pattern of life occurs for the Paul Evans family, which operates a fish wheel near Rampart, a village of about 50. The powerful Yukon rotates the fish wheel, and with each revolution the two huge baskets alternately dip into the water, often scooping up migrating salmon.

For the Evanses, the annual run of salmon is one of the year's highlights. In the winter, they pass out jarred fish and chunks of dried meat to friends and family. And they remember the long summer days when salmon choked the river.

Help from the outside

Perhaps because of the closure, the intensity of the anger, and the perceived need, Governor Hickel attempted to assist a number of villages by distributing fish.

Some, however, refused his help, saying they didn't want handouts. With mixed emotions, residents of Beaver (population about 75) decided to accept the fish.

The shipment came in January, but arrived much too late for Henry to avert starvation. One month earlier, Henry had shot seven of his dogs.

``Wasn't it better,'' he lamented, ``than letting them starve to death?''

But even with the January shipment, Henry still had to place his dogs on limited rations. ``The state promised 35,000 pounds,'' Henry said. ``We got 35,000 fish for the entire village. Our dogs need 2,000 pounds apiece a year of fish.''

Many villagers go even further, saying that the Hickel administration sent chum salmon that had expended themselves and were of little food value for dogs.

``They were all spawned out,'' says Babe Adams, who operates the post office in Beaver. ``The salmon had reached the end of their lives and had used up all their fat reserves. They were ready for the bone yard.''

``Good thing,'' said Eddie Wiehl, who also runs dogs in Beaver, ``for Ralston Purina.'' Hearing of the problem, Ralston Purina donated 22 tons of dog food to TCC. But the January donation arrived too late for Art Henry and his dogs.

Because subsistence fishing fills so many crucial needs, any attempt to subtract from the fish population generates anger.

As a result, the subject has become the most tangled and confusing issue in Alaskan politics.

In recent years, the issues have been compounded by a string of court rulings and sometimes conflicting state and federal policies. Should the state or the federal government control subsistence? With the closure of the Yukon, a multitude of questions has once again emerged.

The state decrees that few hunting and fishing privileges should be given to rural Alaskans. The federal government, on the other hand, mandates a rural preference.

The issue has wider consequences as well, officials say, because whoever controls subsistence can also affect the state's multimillion-dollar commercial and sport-fishing industries. Indeed, the issue has been mired in the realm of biopolitics, with Indians along the Yukon having the least political clout - until recently.

Last fall, the Alaska Federation of Natives filed a petition asking the US Department of the Interior to take over management of all subsistence fisheries from the state.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who believes subsistence is the most pressing Alaskan issue before him, said he agrees in theory with the Indians. Mr. Babbitt told Alaskans he thought Congress meant to protect subsistence fishing as well as subsistence hunting when it passed the 1980 Alaska Interests Lands Conservation Act.

Hickel responded to Babbitt in a January letter saying, in part, that a federal takeover would cost millions and that federal agencies lacked the technical management expertise and necessary data, both of which would take years to develop. Nevertheless, the possibility of a federal takeover not only exists, but appears to be increasing.

In January, US District Judge Russel Holland issued a tentative ruling in favor of the Indians, saying Congress intended the rural subsistence priority to apply to fisheries all over Alaska. The next six months are critical and revolve in part around a nine-year-old lawsuit. The suit was initiated by Katie John and Doors Charles, both elders of Metasta, an Indian village. The case centers on one issue: whether or not federal subsistence law should apply on navigable waters.

A ruling should appear before year's end, though Judge Holland says he intends to issue a stay, meaning litigation may drag on well into 1995. Meanwhile, in March, the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce urged Hickel to restore the old rural subsistence preference.

TCC president Mayo says enacting a subsistence priority would benefit Indians this fall. ``It might require managers to place a cap on chum salmon caught prior to entering the Yukon River,'' he says.

Nevertheless, much litigation needs to be resolved before that will happen. Time will tell the extent to which interior Indians can fish for the fall run of chum salmon.

But time is not something all Indians have. Certainly not Paul Williams, who relies on fish to feed his family, or Eddie Wiehl, who hopes his children can run dogs for the sake of their culture.

And then, of course, there is Art Henry, who works hard on his trap line, extracting a living from the land in about the only way remaining to him. This fall he hopes he can stake out a fish net and harvest chum salmon from this vast river, not only for himself, but also for his dogs.

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