Dozens testify in Bethel during federal hearing on salmon: ‘We bear the brunt of the conservation’
While the “Gathering Place” at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hospital in Bethel is often bustling with people who have come in from the region’s villages for medical appointments, on Nov. 10 they came to talk about salmon.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, acting as vice chair of the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, hosted a field hearing and listening session addressing a topic at the core of daily life in the region. The title of the hearing was: “The Impact of the Historic Salmon Declines on the Health and Well-Being of Alaska Native Communities along Arctic, Yukon, and Kuskokwim Rivers”.
Association of Village Council Presidents CEO Vivian Korthuis said that the tribal organization has been pushing for this type of hearing for two years. It’s a chance to gather first-hand accounts from the people impacted the most by the decline in salmon.
“There's a mixed bag of strategies, and part of the process is getting those on record, and that's a critical part. That's why this hearing is so important,” Korthuis said.
About 100 people showed up, and the hearing began with the testimony of eight invited witnesses representing a large slice of Alaska Native groups calling for action on tribal co-management of resources.
Witnesses echoed the need to strengthen Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which provides a rural priority for the subsistence harvest of fish and wildlife. On the Kuskokwim River, flowing through the heart of a federal wildlife refuge, a battle has been playing out as the state of Alaska and federal government wrestle over the right to manage the river.
“This threat comes at a time when the critical need for a rural subsistence priority due to the shortage of fish is greater than ever,” said Alaska Federation of Natives Executive Vice President Nicole Borromeo.
Association of Village Council Presidents chair Thaddeus Tikiun Jr. summed up the concerns of many who showed up to speak at the hearing.
“While over 100 tribal communities are being restricted to the point of being unable to catch a single salmon, the state of Alaska and some federal management agencies are carrying on business as usual,” Tikiun Jr. said.
“Recently, we documented our customary and traditional use of salmon back 11,000 years, proving how far back our people were salmon people,” Tanana Chiefs Conference chair Brian Ridley said. “An Elder talked to us from our region who said they lived through the Great Depression, but they didn't even know there was a great depression because we had all that we needed.”
Ridley and most other speakers laid out the reasons that salmon are centrally important to the region’s tribes, and why their loss is so devastating. It carries a psychological toll.
“One of the hardest illnesses talking about this comes from not being able to share. We're meant to be able to share with our aunties, to share with our invited guests,” said Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission chair Jonathan Samuelson. “Our protocols are being broken, our values are being challenged, and our way of life is at risk. And it only elevates our unwellness.”
Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation President and CEO Dan Winkelman said that the salmon crisis also impacts families.
“That's how we grow our kids up is through their attachment to the land and the wonderful subsistence opportunities that we have out here in our region,” Winkelman said. “But as that is becoming more restrictive, it is changing our interactions with our children. Our children are looking for other things to do.”
We have been silenced
In the listening session that followed, Murkowski sat alone at a small table as more than 30 people stepped up to a podium to address her, some in Yup'ik with the help of an interpreter. Many were from Bethel and nearby villages, but others came from Yukon River communities hit hardest by the loss of salmon.
“We bear the brunt of the conservation. We the end users, the little people, the people that matter have been silenced,” said Nick Andrew, who came from the lower Yukon village of Marshall. He is the tribal president. “We've been marginalized by the very government that's here to protect our interests as citizens of the United States of America.”
Jim Simon said that he noticed a historic disconnect between government management actions and traditional knowledge in his work as a consultant for tribal organizations on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
“It seems that state and federal agencies are always 10 to 20 years behind Indigenous knowledge,” Simon said. “I remember more than 20 years ago, people along the Yukon talking about the declining size of fish, the change in their shape and morphology, suggesting that something was happening in the ocean decades ago.”
On the theme of co-management, there were strong calls throughout the hearing for Alaska Native representation on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council manages the pollock trawl fishery, which is responsible for the vast majority of Western Alaska salmon bycatch.
People cheered loudly when Fritz Charles of Bethel spoke about bycatch.
“No more another 15, 20 years of ‘oh let's do a study,’” Charles said. “No more studies. We need to put a cap on trawlers and Area M. That's what we need today.”
While nobody can say for sure exactly what is driving declines in Western Alaska salmon, Gloria Simeon of Bethel summed up their importance.
“Subsistence is not a way of life, it is our life,” Simeon testified. “Fish camp is not an activity. It’s a frame of mind.”
A heavy burden
After listening to nearly three hours of public testimony, Murkowski said that she had valued the opportunity to add to the public record regarding the salmon crisis.
“One of the things that was new was to hear how many times people mentioned the connection between the decline in the salmon and mental health issues,” Murkowksi said. “I think we've known it, but we're seeing that be stated in a more clear way.”
Murkowski said that she would be returning to Washington, D.C. with a lot on her mind.
“It's a heavy burden that I take as I leave Bethel this afternoon, but it's one of responsibility,” Murkowski said.
For those unable to be heard in Bethel on Nov. 10, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs record will be open for two weeks following the hearing. Written comments can be submitted by email at email@example.com.