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Federal officials expected in Bethel for first-of-its-kind fishery consultation

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Federal officials are coming to Bethel on Oct. 5 to hear from tribal leaders and subsistence users in the area about low salmon runs.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Commerce, along with representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be at the Orutsararmiut (ONC) Multi-Purpose Building. That includes Bryan Newland, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

“This is senior policy officials from across the federal government coming to hear from subsistence users about their concerns relating to fishing in Alaska,” Newland said.

The Department of Interior says that this is the first-ever tribal consultation like this about Alaska fisheries protection and restoration. In addition to the meeting in Bethel on Oct. 5, the federal officials will also be meeting with tribal leaders in Fairbanks on Oct. 7.

Newland and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta earlier this year.

“And one of the things we heard during that process was, 'we want you to come up here and see for yourself and hear from us directly in person.' And it was very eye opening for me. We heard on that trip that folks want us to come back and engage with rural subsistence users.”

Mike Williams Sr. plans to testify at the meeting. He’s the chair of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and will also testify on behalf of his tribe, Akiak Native Community.

Williams Sr. is hoping that conversations with federal officials will eventually lead to a zero bycatch policy in the North Pacific, meaning that he wants commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea to stop intercepting salmon as they fish for other species.

“If the salmon are going to survive, everybody has to take that responsibility and make our decisions to preserve our salmon,” Williams Sr. said.

Newland said that the issue of bycatch is complicated, and federal officials are battling competing interests when it comes to commercial fisheries.

“It’s a complicated issue because tribal communities, which are the communities I work with as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, also rely on a commercial fishery to provide jobs and support economic development in their communities,” Newland said.

Williams Sr. hopes that this isn’t the last consultation like this. He wants the federal government to continue listening to tribes. He believes it’s possible to have sustainable fishing on the Kuskokwim River.

“We've looked after our natural resources here for thousands of years, and we've lived here for thousands of years. And we have all that experience in our traditional knowledge. It's very valuable to make sure that our traditional knowledge or input are considered in policy decisions,” Williams Sr. said.

Newland said that they want to hear from tribal leaders like Williams Sr. But he said that they’re also hoping to hear from anyone who’s been impacted by historically low salmon runs.

“We're also interested in hearing directly from subsistence users and folks who are out on the lands of waters and seeing a changing ecosystem with their own eyes, and really hearing from them about what they've seen over the course of their lives, what their concerns are and what their ideas are on how to better do our jobs,” said Newland.

The Bethel consultation with federal officials is on Oct. 5 at ONC. ONC Self-governance Director Gisela Chapa said in a statement, “ONC hopes this effort will provide for meaningful dialogue where Traditional Knowledge and Tribal perspectives inform the Alaska federal fishery management and decision-making process.”

Nina was a temporary news reporter at KYUK. She comes to Bethel from NPR, where she's a producer at Morning Edition.
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