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Amid a troubling decline in salmon that’s affecting tribal subsistence in Alaska, a new proposal by two federal agencies would give Alaska Natives a seat at the table — three of them, actually — in decisions that affect their traditional practices. 

Under a proposal unveiled Feb. 15 by a Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, the agencies recommend adding three additional public members to the Federal Subsistence Board (FSB), which oversees a multi-agency program to support the subsistence way of life for rural Alaskans by ensuring access to public lands and waters, and sustaining healthy fish and wildlife populations. 

The new members of the FSB would be nominated by federally recognized tribal governments in Alaska, aiming to address the pressing challenges faced by Indigenous communities in sustaining their traditional subsistence practices.

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The board, which oversees the Federal Subsistence Management Program, is currently composed of the regional directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Forest Service. The board also includes three public members appointed by the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture — two representing rural subsistence users and a board chairman. 

The board has the authority to manage fish and wildlife for subsistence use on federal public lands and waters in Alaska. The board also contributes to research in the area, tracking fish stocks, subsistence harvest and use patterns, and the collection and analysis of traditional knowledge.

Under this new proposal, the two lead agencies will appoint three additional public members ostensibly familiar with the troubles facing Alaska Native subsistence villages and governments. Additionally, the proposed rule would require that the FSB chairman have personal knowledge of and experience with rural subsistence uses.

“Since time immemorial, subsistence practices have played a central role in meeting the nutritional, social, economic, spiritual and cultural needs of Alaska Native people,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “By strengthening Indigenous representation on the Federal Subsistence Board, we seek to not only preserve these important traditions, but to fully recognize Tribal sovereignty and ensure the inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge for future subsistence-related planning. When Indigenous communities are at the table, everyone who enjoys a subsistence lifestyle has more opportunities to thrive.”

A subsistence crisis

The timing of the proposal coincides with a severe subsistence crisis, particularly affecting Alaska Native villages due to a sharp decline in salmon runs.The decline is attributed to a combination of factors, experts say, including climate change, regulatory issues, and overfishing.

A November 2023 field hearing by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs indicated that salmon, which comprises a significant portion of many Alaska Native villages’ subsistence diets, had nearly disappeared in some areas, with some runs falling more than 80% over the last decade. 

Thaddeus Tikiun, Jr., chairperson of the Association of Village Council Presidents, testified during the field hearing that Chinook salmon runs in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta had failed to meet the subsistence needs — much less the economic needs — of Native villages in the region for eight years in a row. 

“Those days of abundance are gone and we are now in a crisis situation in Western Alaska — and I am not a person who uses the word ‘crisis’ loosely,” Tikiun told the Indian Affairs committee. “I have never seen salmon returns so low on the Kuskokwim River, where I have lived my whole life, or on the Yukon River, where I have traveled many times and have many friends and family members who live there. 

“This crisis is unlike any other in living memory,” Tikiun said. 

Tribes are used to salmon declines, but historically they have seen the runs bounce back, according to testimony by Jonathan Samuelson, chair of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The lack of “bouncing back into abundance” has caused the current disaster that’s been exacerbated by climate change, overfishing in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, regulatory issues, and a move away from Indigenous practices. 

“We believe [the decline of salmon] is influenced by climate change and the removal of Indigenous voices and stewardship practices from contemporary fisheries management,” Samuelson testified. That’s dangerous, he continued, because salmon serve as the “heart” of the region’s ecosystem, supplying necessary nutrients and resources to everything from moose to bears to migratory birds. 

“Our reciprocal stewardship relationship with the salmon has fostered both of our health and well-being on the Kuskokwim. We have evolved together over millennia to sustain one another,” Samuelson said during his testimony. 

The impact of such sharp declines cannot be understated, Nicole Borremeo, executive vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, told the Senate committee. More than 95% of households in rural Alaska consume subsistence-caught fish, according to a study by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with salmon comprising nearly a third of their diet. 

That makes these declines prohibitively expensive when trying to replace the missing food: Borremeo estimated the cost to federal food programs of providing substitute fish at anywhere from $97 million to $193 million. 

The impact on tribal fisheries has been equally devastating, curtailing economic growth and their ability to meet the subsistence needs of their citizens — and that’s when tribes can fish in the first place. Restrictive regulations have left tribal fisheries hamstrung in ways that don’t apply to commercial and sport fisheries, Samuelson testified.

Many tribes have been limited to rod and reel fishing, rather than relying on nets and other mass-fishing techniques, he said.

“Year after year, our communities are sacrificing our harvests, salmon protein, and time at fish camp––core elements of our traditional ways of life––to protect vulnerable salmon populations and strive to meet spawner escapement goals. Yet we are not seeing similar sacrifices on the part of other fisheries,” Samuelson said. “It seems some sacrifices are deemed necessary, while others (are) inconceivable (in order) to maintain the status quo.”

A seat at the table

Part of the issue of regulatory disconnect between tribal restrictions and commercial restrictions centers on the way existing regulations apply strictly to federally controlled lands, rather than state-controlled land. 

Laws such as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which provides special protections to over 157,000,000 acres of land, signaled clearly that Congress recognizes the importance of subsistence farming to Native communities, Tikiun said. But stronger actions need to be taken to constrict private commercial efforts, not just those on federal lands. 

Without those efforts, state management has repeatedly prioritized the needs of the commercial fisheries, which account for more than 98% of salmon fishing in Alaska, Tikiun said. He pointed to “intercept fisheries” in the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, which collect “huge numbers of salmon” before they ever make it inland.

Together, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Department of Commerce “have overseen the long-term, catastrophic decline of salmon runs in Western and Interior Alaska,” Tikiun testified during the field hearing in November. “Neither has taken substantial actions to preserve what is left of our salmon runs, much less restore them. There is simply no sense of urgency. (They) continue business as usual and, in so doing, ignore the health and cultural wellbeing of our YK Delta tribal communities.”

Alaskan Native communities have proposed an array of solutions, such as combating attempts by the State of Alaska to open federal lands up to state management for subsistence fishing and funding more co-management opportunities between tribes and government agencies. 

All of the solutions came back to a few core ideas: honoring tribal sovereignty, restoring fishing and hunting rights in the region, and giving Natives a seat at the table in preserving a crucial resource to their communities. 

The newly announced proposal to add more tribally nominated members to the FSB, the DOI and USDA write, is a step in that direction.  

“Honoring our general trust responsibility and fostering greater collaboration with our Indigenous partners is a key goal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Incorporating Indigenous knowledge that has been gained over millennia into our Federal Subsistence decision-making is an important step in that effort.”

The proposed rule changes for the FSB will have a notice placed in the Federal Register “in the coming days,” per the joint statement. That notice will include instructions for public comment. 

A separate notice will be shared with tribal governments regarding nation-to-nation consultations ahead.

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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