This story was originally published by Grist and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration
When salmon nearly disappeared from western Alaska in 2021, thousands of people in the region faced disaster. Rural families lost a crucial food source. Commercial fishermen found themselves without a significant source of income. Alaska Native children stopped learning how to catch, fillet, dry and smoke fish – a tradition passed down from the time of their ancestors.
Behind the scenes, the salmon shortage has also fueled a long-running legal battle between Native stakeholders, the Biden administration and the state over who has the right to fish on Alaska’s vast federal lands.
At the heart of the dispute is a provision in a 1980 federal law called the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which gives rural Alaskans priority over urban residents for fishing and hunting on federal lands. Most rural families are Indigenous, so some lawyers and advocates consider the law essential to protecting the rights of Alaska Natives. However, state officials believe the law has been misinterpreted as violating state rights by giving federal regulators authority over fisheries owned by Alaskans.
Now, a lawsuit claims the state has overstepped its bounds. Federal officials say state regulators have tried to usurp control of fishing along the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska, where salmon make up about half of all food produced in the region. The lawsuit, originally filed by the Biden administration in 2022 against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, escalated this fall when state lawyers effectively called for an end to federal oversight of fishing in much of Alaska. Native leaders say the state’s actions threaten Alaska Natives statewide.
“Our future is at stake,” said Vivian Curthuis, CEO of the Association of Village Council Chiefs, a federation of more than 50 Western Alaska Native nations, one of four Alaska Native groups supporting the Biden administration on the issue. “What is at stake is our children. What is at stake is our families, our communities and our tribes.”
The lawsuit is a microcosm of how climate change is increasing the risks of fishing conflicts around the world. While tensions over salmon management in Alaska are not new, they have been exacerbated by recent marine heat waves in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska and rising temperatures in rivers such as the Yukon and Kuskokwim, where king, chum and coho salmon populations congregate. I fell. In warmer waters, salmon burn more calories. They are more likely to suffer from malnutrition and less likely to reach freshwater spawning areas. With fewer fish in places like western Alaska, the question of who should manage them — and who can access them — has become more pressing.
The Alaska dispute erupted in 2021, when state regulators in Kuskokwim issued fishing restrictions that conflicted with regulations set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People along the river, mostly Yup’ik, have been forced to deal with contradictory rules about if and when they can legally fish, adding to the pain and frustration of an already disastrous season shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and historic salmon shortages.
Evan M. said: “We can face heavy penalties and fines if we make mistakes,” Ivan, an elder from the Yup’ik village of Akiak, said in an affidavit.
With salmon disappearing, the battle over fishing rights for Alaska Natives rages on. #Salmon #Indigenous #Alaska #AlaskaNative #FishingRights
The conflict extended into 2022, another year of the return of pelagic salmon, when state and federal regulators again issued contradictory restrictions. Officials in Alaska blamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for opening fishing prematurely, before salmon began their upriver migration, and with a “clear lack of interest” in preserving the species. The Biden administration has sued, arguing that the state illegally imposed its own rules in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, a federal reserve of wetlands and spruce and birch forests surrounding more than 30 Indigenous communities.
The battle raged quietly for more than a year — until September, when state lawyers filed a brief explicitly asking the court to undo legal precedent that is widely seen as a safeguard for rural, mostly Indigenous, families who depend on salmon. The move caused Alaska’s largest Indigenous organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives, to join three smaller Indigenous groups that intervened on behalf of the federal government.
These organizations are concerned that the state wants to overturn a series of court decisions, known as the “Katie John decision.” The cases, which held that rural Alaskans have priority to fish for food in rivers that flow through federal conservation areas, including long sections of the Yukon, Kusukuwim, and Copper rivers. Alaska Native leaders fear that eliminating the priority would endanger salmon fish and limit local people’s access to them by opening up fishing to more people.
“This is really going to put a lot of pressure on stocks,” said Erin Lynch, an Anchorage-based attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which represents the Village Council Chiefs Association.
This concern is not limited to western Alaska. Ahtna Inc., a company owned by Indigenous shareholders in the Copper River region — about 500 miles east of the Kuskokwim — also sided with the Biden administration. Without federal protections on the Copper River, Ahtna fishermen risk being “expelled,” according to John Skye Starkey, an attorney representing the Ahtna.
“There are only so many fish. There are only a few places (to fish),” Starkey said. “It’s too dangerous.”
State officials see the issue differently. They say there will be no threat of poaching or competition between urban and rural residents, in part because rivers like the Yukon and Kusuquim are difficult to access from cities like Anchorage. They point out that state law explicitly protects the subsistence rights of all Alaskans, including Alaska Natives. They blame the feds for picking a fight by taking the case to court.
“We did not file this lawsuit,” said Doug Vincent Lange, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We prioritize sustenance, and we take that seriously.”
State attorneys also claim the federal policy is unfair to Alaska Natives who have moved to cities because it prevents them from fishing with relatives in rural areas. Some indigenous leaders see this as flawed as well, but disagree with the state on a solution. Instead of getting rid of federal management, they called on Congress to strengthen protections for Alaska Natives.
The case, now before the US District Court in Alaska, is likely to heat up further in the coming months. A ruling is expected in the spring.