Over the past several years I have been to many fishing related meetings, always under the auspices of federal and/or state managers (most who don’t even live here) that have been deciding how and when the People could fish for decades – fish for the food they have depended on for countless generations. The People’s participation was always in an advisory capacity only, and at the end of the day, managers could disregard their advice and do what they wanted or what was dictated/mandated to them by a system very far removed from the People, the River, the fish camps and even the fish themselves. In the few short years that I’ve been involved in Kuskokwim fisheries management, I can cite several concrete examples of the People’s advice being ignored that led to civil disobedience (2012), the decimation of the season’s King salmon run (2013), or that have just shown a lack of respect (2014).
Throughout the previous meetings that I have attended one common theme has emerged – the tribal People’s – the original users of the fish – desire to be more than advisors. They want to be co-managers.
For the past two days, as the Native Village of Napaimute’s delegate to the First Kuskokwim Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission I’ve had the privilege of helping to bring this dream to reality.
This was by far the best Kuskokwim fishing meeting that I have ever been to.
What made it the best was that it was a meeting run by the People for the People and almost every tribe along the Kuskokwim was in attendance – all the way from Nikolai to Chefornak. The only federally-recognized tribes not present were: Telida, Takotna, Lime Village, Sleetmute, and Red Devil. It was a powerful thing to have that many tribes gathered for one purpose – preservation of the subsistence salmon fishing culture of this River through co-management between the Tribes, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
State and federal managers were invited and attended as observers. Representatives of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission were also there as observers/advisors. KYUK broadcast the meeting live over the radio. We were told that many across the State were watching and listening to this historic meeting.
Geoff Haskett, Regional Director – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service even flew in for the second day of the KRITFC meeting. After the first day’s meeting, maybe his managers advised him to come and witness history in the making!
The meeting went very well – without the controversy between different parts of the River that some expected. Some obvious differences between Kuskokwim subsistence fishermen still emerged but were worked through. Two executive sessions were called so that we could talk openly and say some things about each other or managers that no one else needed to hear, misconstrue, or overly dramatize. In the end we discussed, agreed to and voted on several guiding principles for the 2015 that the In-Season KRITFC Management Representatives will bring forth to federal managers during their weekly tribal consultations.
Both days went well beyond the regular meeting time. The work being done was too important to rush.
The following is a press release from the KRITFC that covers the main points of what was accomplished at this important meeting.
MAY 8, 2015 KUSKOKWIM INTER-TRIBAL FISH COMMISSION PRESS RELEASE:
Developing a Meaningful Role for Tribes and Rural Residents Engaged in the Management of Alaska’s Fish and Wildlife
On May 5, 2015, tribally elected Commissioners from all 28 tribes on the Kuskokwim River Drainage who attended the meeting voted unanimously to adopt a constitution and bylaws and establish the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (KRITFC). The remaining five Kuskokwim River Drainage tribes were invited and expressed interest, but were unable to attend the meeting. This meeting held special meaning for Ed Johnstone and Mike Grayum who attended the meeting to witness this historic event. Their leader and longtime friend Chairman Billy Frank was instrumental in establishing the Northwest Indian Fish Commission (NWIFC). Coincidentally, the KRITFC was established on the anniversary of Billy’s passing. Ed and Mike have stated that towards the end of his life Billy directed them to support the Kuskokwim peoples in any way they could to assist them in establishing their own Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Guided by the direction of their respected elder, Ed and Mike have expressed that they are committed to honoring Billy’s legacy and supporting the Kuskokwim people.
The KRITFC voted unanimously to elect Mike Williams, Sr. of Akiak to be the KRITFC Chairman. Upon being elected, Mike Williams stated, “I am honored to have been elected to Chair the KRITFC on the day that Billy went to the other side. I will never forget him. I look forward to representing all of the 33 Tribes in the Kuskokwim River Drainage with a unified voice, and working with federal and state managers for the best interest of our citizens and our fish.” Nick Kameroff, Jr. of Aniak was elected Vice Chairman, and Charlene Erik of Chefornak was elected Secretary. The KRITFC also voted unanimously to sub-divide the Kuskokwim River Drainage into seven sub-districts for the purpose of electing Executive Council members. Each of the communities within the seven sub-districts include: 1) McGrath, Takotna, Telida, Nikolai, 2) Stony River, Lime Village, Sleetmute, Red Devil, Georgetown, Crooked Creek, 3) Napaimute, Chuathbaluk, Aniak, Kalskag, Lower Kalskag, 4) Tuluksak, Akiak, Akiachak, Kwethluk, 5) Bethel, 6) Oscarville, Napaskiak, Napakiak, Atmauthluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, 7) Tuntutuliak, Eek, Kwigillignok, Kongiganak, Chefornak, Kipnuk, Quinhagak. Commissioners from each of the seven sub-districts held a caucus and elected an Executive Council member to represent their sub-district. Elected Executive Council members by sub-district include: 1) Nick Petruska, 2) Tim Zaukar, 3) Gerald Kameroff, 4) James Nicori, 5) Greg Roczicka, 6) Golga Frederick, and 7) James Charles.
On May 6, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game briefed the KRITFC on their respective fisheries management plans for the Kuskokwim River during the 2015 fishing season. The Fish and Wildlife expressed that they intended to send out a press release that same day detailing their Kuskokwim Fisheries management plan. Several KRITFC Commissioners voiced their frustrations with what they perceived as a lack of collaboration between tribes and rural residents and federal and state managers regarding the development of a 2015 Kuskokwim Fisheries management plan. KRITFC Commissioner Mark Leary of Napaimute stated, “Once again, they came and told us this is how it is going to be. I am processing what just happened, and I don’t think I like it. I hope that this is the last time this happens.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Geoff Haskett responded, “Before today this Commission did not exist. What [Yukon Delta Refuge Manager] Neil Lalonde proposed was based on what we heard from around the river. [In the future] This Commission is going to have way more ability to be involved in the discussion. Our intent is to utilize this Commission to act upon some things and be involved in the discussions.” What remains unclear is the definition of what way more ability to be involved will really mean for the KRITFC and the tribes and local residents they represent.
The KRITFC adopted a resolution to appoint James Charles, Greg Roczicka, and Nick Kameroff, Jr. to represent the KRITFC as local in-season managers of the Kuskokwim River Drainage. Along with the KRITFC Chair, these three in-season managers will work together with federal and state fisheries managers during the 2015 fishing season. Neil Lalonde expressed that he is committed to working with the KRITFC Chair and local in-season managers during the 2015 fishing season. Several KRITFC Commissioners expressed that they look forward to hearing soon from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that they too will be committed to working with the KRITFC during in-season management.
The KRITFC Commissioners were encouraged by Geoff Haskett’s intentions and remain optimistic that in the future Western Alaskan tribes and rural residents will be meaningfully engaged in the development of the Kuskokwim Fisheries Management Plan and the in-season decision making process. In October 2014 at the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor announced that the DOI would fund a multi-year demonstration project on the Kuskokwim River. Mike Connor stated that the purpose of the demonstration project was to “provide increased local involvement in the in-season decision making process.” The KRITFC shares this vision for the involvement of their tribes and rural residents in Kuskokwim Fisheries Management. Moving forward, KRITFC Commissioners expressed that their goal will be to develop one unified management system for the Kuskokwim River which provides equal decision making authority between tribes, rural residents, and state and federal managers.
To gather information, establish a working relationship, and develop a strategy for moving forward, the KRITFC voted unanimously to support sending the KRITFC Executive Officers and staff to attend the upcoming NWIFC annual meeting on May 19 in Washington State. From witnessing the proceedings of the inaugural KRITFC meeting, one thing seems clear. The people of the Kuskokwim River are no longer satisfied with serving in an advisory role to state and federal fisheries managers. The drums of 28 tribes appeared to beat in unison at this historic event. The message, Kuskokwim River tribes and rural residents desire a meaningful role in the management of fish and wildlife as it was expressed by Congress in Section 801 (5) of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, roles that until now most Western Alaskans agree have been meaningless.