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Bycatch debate at AFN reveals a regional rift among tribes

Alaska Federation of Native delegate Beverly Hoffman of Bethel speaks on subsistence during the Consideration of 2022 AFN Convention Resolutions at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage.
Elyssa Loughlin
Alaska Public Media
Alaska Federation of Native delegate Beverly Hoffman of Bethel speaks on subsistence during the Consideration of 2022 AFN Convention Resolutions at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage.

Two resolutions brought before the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) during the 2022 annual convention called for efforts to reduce salmon bycatch for fish that return to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Debate over both resolutions was contentious and revealed a regional rift among tribes

One resolution called on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to support measures that decrease salmon bycatch by commercial trawlers in a region along the Aleutian Island chain known as “Area M.” A second resolution requested that the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council address bycatch amounts in the same region.

“I really have to take a step back here and talk about how sad I am that we have to fight so hard here to be heard to try to protect our salmon,” said Brian Ridley. Ridley is the chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Interior region tribal organization that brought both resolutions to the floor of the annual AFN convention.

“I know this is a controversial issue,” Ridley told a crowd of hundreds after the resolutions were introduced on the floor on Oct. 22. “There’s a lot of people that didn’t want to have this discussion here, but if we don’t have it here and we don’t get the support of AFN, the problem is we’re gonna be out of the fish on the Yukon and Kuskokwim and we’re gonna be talking endangered species,” he said.

In Interior communities, like Eagle, where Ridley grew up, people have not been able to fish for salmon for three years.

Resolutions are kind of like marching orders for AFN. Those that pass tell AFN leadership where to concentrate their efforts on behalf of the organization's membership for the coming year. Member delegates from across the state debated on the two resolutions regarding salmon bycatch for over an hour.

“Historically, income we have received throughout the summer fishing season has lasted throughout the winter, and we also rely on it for subsistence fishing and we don’t have a store in our community,” said Bobbie Allen, who represents Nelson Lagoon Corporation. “We have to have stuff flown in, barged in, or whatever other methods that we can to get food there that we can’t get through subsistence fishing or hunting,” she said.

Allen and other Aleutian and Pribilof Islands representatives said that they’ve seen salmon declines for two decades, and that further limits on both their commercial and subsistence resources threaten the long-term sustainability of communities in that region.

“This resolution has singled out Area M without uniting and addressing the other affected areas,” Allen said. “We support the underlying initiative, but we are unable to support the divisive nature of this resolution.”

Rob Sanderson is the second vice president of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska from Southeast Alaska. “We’re fighting this fight in the wrong arena," said Sanderson. "I’ve been attending the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for over 22 years. And if you want action to get taken, start attending these meetings. Because ultimately, it’s gonna fall on the feds and the state government that makes these decisions.”

Fisheries are managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

During the debate, Karen Linnell, who is the executive director for the Ahnta Intertribal Resource Commission, said that she also sees federal managers as a more appropriate target for a fight about subsistence resources.

“The problem with this system is that the fisheries are under the Department of Commerce and not a natural resource agency who has the responsibility for sustainability. It’s all about that dollar and not about the salmon,” Linnell said.

AFN members who utilize Area M for subsistence fishing did try to both postpone the vote and move debate on the resolutions to executive session, but those motions failed. At one point, attendees from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region stood with their backs to AFN’s resolutions committee in protest of the process.

In the end, both resolutions passed. Some AFN members abstained from voting on the grounds that the issues were not unifying and the theme of the 2022 convention was unity.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.