Subsistence is a word hunters, fishers, trappers, and dog mushers sometimes use to describe their lives as it relates to fish, game and land use resources. The definition of subsistence is also interpreted by Federal and state personnel, being influenced not only by traditional and customary practices of the users but also by political and regulatory expedience. The end result is sometimes two definitions that find themselves worlds apart and in conflict with each other.
The more traditional examples of subsistence that exist today seem to be part of a yearly cycle that includes activities taken up in each of the seasons. Setting up fish camp in the spring, fishing for family, dogs and customary trade all summer, hunting and running trap lines during winter – are all activities that are interrelated and made more efficient by the other parts of the cycle. All the activities contribute to each other. While the times they are a changing, healthy examples of this lifestyle in whole or part still exist in the interior and other parts of Alaska today.
The ability to practice and pass on traditional subsistence activities to the next generation is in big trouble. Almost every aspect of this seasonal lifestyle has a regulation or requirement somewhere that makes it virtually impossible for the average subsistence user to legally carry out that activity. Often one finds themselves in open violation of an enforced law and sometimes it is a violation of a law that “sits on the books” and is not enforced because of political considerations.
What I see is enough apathy over changing this situation, from our Federal and state governments to our regional organizations and all the way down to the people who use the resources that the decline we now see in subsistence rights and subsistence use will continue. We are passing on to our children the distinct possibility that they will not be able do what we did. At the very least they will not only have to deal with the issues that come up in their lives but they will have to the fights the fights that we didn’t want to.
Below are three examples of regulatory agencies having very harmful effects on subsistence. One is in the recent past and its effects on trappers have already been felt. One is presently affecting fishermen on the Yukon River. And one is slowly lining itself up to further affect Yukon River fishermen. There are many more just like them.
Some fishermen and even some of our sympathetic legislators have suggested that to bring these issues to light only causes premature enforcement. Both the past and present issues below do not bear that out. Both of these were activities that accumulated a series of unreasonable requirements and regulations that sat on the books for years only to surface years later biting us all on the ass as most heads were stuck in the tundra. When will we learn?
The Past - Federal Regulations over Sale of Raw Furs
The following is mostly selected sentences from a letter/poster used years ago (2000) to protest the below described regulations:
Subject: Federal requirements help end traditional subsistence trapping activity
In the last say 8 years fur prices have been low and somewhat unstable. Some local interior buyers have quit and others have been forced to limit their activity and offering price. At this time the Canadian auction houses are the only places offering regularly scheduled sales and prices capable of making the always financially marginal activity of trapping worthwhile. The big problem is about the same time this Canadian option is again becoming a necessity the Federal Government stepped in. The same Federal Government that just took over subsistence fish management from the State because they say the State can’t properly protect the subsistence lifestyle.
In the fall of 1997 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife sent agents of their Division of Law Enforcement to many interior villages where they handed out a bulletin telling trappers that any future shipments of fur would have to comply with an incredible amount of permits, fees, paperwork, and inspections. These requirements were accumulated over many years, were never enforced and certainly unknown by almost every trapper. They were not specific requirements of an International Treaty, as our Government would have us believe. They are, in true bureaucratic fashion, simply the methods our new subsistence managers have chosen and are now being pressured into not changing by anti-trapping outside interests. All the information that could possibly be needed for whatever purpose is already available on the State trapping license, tagging paperwork and State export tag, which we are not objecting to.
Many people and organizations have spent much effort since to change this situation. The Fish and Wildlife Service has responded by making numerous insignificant changes to the process. These changes allow them to be able to say they are trying to help us when the newspaper calls or they receive complaints from Senators Stevens, Murkowski and Representative Young. One quote in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner was “We are bending over backwards to work with the trappers”. Well thanks to all their bending over if someone wanted to send out a shipment of fur this winter and it contained for example 1 wolf, 3 lynx, and 10 marten you would only need:
1.)$25.00 Port Exception Permit (every 2 years)
2.)$25.00 CITES export permit (every time you ship)
3.)$50.00 Import/Export license (every year)
4.)Free Declaration of Import/Export Permit (every time you ship)
5.)An free inspection (use to cost $90) is required in a major city. (closest place for interior people is Fairbanks and this can add hundreds of dollars in expenses for airplane tickets and overnight lodging) An appointment is required. (every shipment)
6.)Records of shipment paperwork is required by law
•Most of these cannot be filled out and obtained prior to the season, as they must contain all the fur numbers to be shipped. They are not available locally.
In the fall of 1998 working with the Tanana Tribal Council the Federal process was documented, sometimes using a video camera and speakerphone. One wolf and 10 marten were sold to Vancouver Auction Sales meeting all the federal requirements. A $34 average for marten was realized and $185 went to our new subsistence saviors for the permits (in 1998 it cost more than the above 2000 amounts). It took 2 1/2 months for the paperwork with no delays on our end. Our records and phone recordings of the sale show a bureaucracy that has no support for the subsistence lifestyle.
In spring of 1998 the same was done with some marten, fox and lynx but without the above permits. According to a sympathetic friend in the Anchorage Fish and Wildlife Office, when the enforcement agents recognized the name on the box of fur they figured they were being set up to be sued (they were). They sent the box on to Canada and notified authorities there forcing them to confiscate the fur instead of them.
Paul Erhart, working for the Tanana Tribal Council environmental office at the time, said he counted 20 people who had made sales of fur, from a few to many, the year prior to these permits. Since 1997 there has not been a legal sale of fur out of the village of Tanana. Many have fur from years ago and nobody talks about going trapping anymore. People in Tanana work very hard to keep traditional activities from becoming permitted activities. We go to YRDFA, State and Federal Advisory meetings all the time with the same message from the persons we represent – “Above all else no permits or paperwork”. When an activity is permitted the first people it affects is the elders who have a hard enough time as it is. The next is our youth who view it as to complicated to be involved in. It is like a disease to the subsistence lifestyle.
At the Alaska Federation of Native Youth and Elders conference in Anchorage in 2002 a student got a resolution passed unanimously on the open floor asking for immediate relief from these permits. Something like this makes the whole subject of the Federal Government protecting subsistence rights a sad joke. Below: Resolution (passed at youth and elders conference)
Resolution in Support of a Moratorium on all Federal Fur Shipping Export Permits Inspections and Fees
Submitted by the Tanana Tribal Youth Delegation
Whereas trapping has been a major healthy and traditional activity available to young people.
Whereas the Federal governments enforcement of a ridiculous amount of regulations and permits has eliminated trappers ability to sell their fur in a reasonable and economic way
Whereas these regulations do nothing to provide information that is not already being provided by locally available and easy to fill out state for tags and licenses
Be it here resolved that we ask for an immediate moratorium on this entire Federal process and support from the Federal government in keeping the subsistence activity free of restrictive measures.
Note (2006): the past couple of years a method has been set up by two of the Canadian Auction Houses that get trappers furs across the border legally. So far the Federal government has not been stopping it. See the Trapping Page on this web site for shipping info. A positive note - prices are increasing, local buyers are offering reasonable amounts and more persons are being made aware of these Canadian shipping methods. Trapping is still however a fraction of what it was in 1996.
The Present - DEC and Commercial Fishing
Presently there is no commercial fishing in the drainage that I would say supports itself. Were it not for the fact these same fishers had fish to put up for their extended families or dogs to feed, keeping them on the river, it would be hard for anyone to justify the effort and costs of today’s commercial fishing.
What commercial there is left however does help immensely with people’s life on the river. That few hundred or few thousand dollars is what makes the difference for many fish camps on the river. On the river you hear people say commercial is subsistence and this is why.
The recent interpretations and enforcement of the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regulations regarding roe fishing and State sponsoring of southeast Alaska hatcheries (using millions of dollars of taxpayer money and the constant relaxation of the wanton waste laws) has eliminated much of the potential commercial benefit middle and upper Yukon fishers might otherwise see from the latest strong chum runs.
Below is a listing of DEC regulatory requirements compiled by the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association (YRDFA) that were on the books for many years but only recently enforced in 2004 and 2005. The below has effectively eliminated the possibility of a roe fishery in this area. In 2005 fishers watched a record run of fall chum swim by even though the area fish buyer had some markets for roe available and commercial openings were allowed. 2006 is expected to be the same although YRDFA and others are fighting the issue.
The $325 permit fee for Direct-Market Land Based Facilities (18 AAC 34.900(12)) represents an incredible obstacle to Yukon River fishers seeking to remove roe at their fish camps. A fee of $325 at this point in the fisheries recovery represents a substantial portion of fishers’ yearly gross income from roe, which can be as low as $1200. Further, the proposed regulations will entail a considerable expenditure in constructing fish camp facilities, upwards of $2,000 each.
The permit requirements for a Direct-Market Land Based Facility (18 AAC 34.035, adopted by reference in 18 AAC 34.700(a)(2)) represent a substantial barrier to rural Alaskans seeking to operate in the roe fishery. The permit application itself is more than twenty pages in length, and while many sections of the application would not apply to a small roe harvesting operation at a fish camp, the application as a whole necessitates substantial technical assistance for rural fishers to complete.
Hazard Planning Process
The hazard planning process required by 18 AAC 34.045 and applied to Direct-Market Land Based Facilities through 18 AAC 34.700(a)(2) represents another obstacle for Yukon River fishers seeking to harvest roe. Under this section, a processor must conduct a hazard analysis in writing. This analysis must be conducted by someone who is Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified. If the hazard analysis reveals that there is a hazard, the processor must have a HACCP plan. Facilities that only remove roe will likely not have any hazards, but although no HACCP plan will be required a cleaning and sanitation schedule will still be required (18 AAC 34.740).
The Facility Requirements for a Direct-Market Land Based Facility, (18 AAC 34.060 and 34.710) will still be extremely difficult and costly to implement on the Yukon River. Under the proposed regulations, removal of roe must take place within a solid structure with four walls, a roof and a floor. While the exterior walls can be made of a flexible material (18 AAC 34.060(1)(A)(i)), interior walls must be made of a solid material and sealed to the floor (18 AAC 34.060(4)). This means in effect that a solid structure, rather than a temporary collapsible one, must be built. This will require building structures at individual camps, and moving them from the shoreline to above the ice line on a seasonal basis, an extremely expensive endeavor in bush Alaska.
Under 18 AAC 34.730 and 34.085, Direct-Market Land Based Facilities must have handwash sinks with hot and cold water under pressure. Hot water must be between 109 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. These requirements will be nearly impossible to achieve in fish camps on the Yukon River, few of which have running water or electricity. The same sanitation benefits can be achieved with chlorine rinses or other DEC- approved sanitizers without the hardship of having to supply hot water.
Water used for processing in a Direct-Market Land Based Facility must be from a source approved by the department (18 AAC 34.720). Water must be tested before beginning processing and every 30 days in a state approved laboratory. The samples must be received by the lab within 48 hours from when they are taken, and thus must be flown out from the Yukon River at great expense to the fisher.
Inspection fees under these proposed regulations, should a perceived problem exist and inspections be necessary, are extremely prohibitive to a small-scale roe harvesting operation. The hourly inspection fees for Interior Alaska of $80 an hour, as well as travel costs, could easily represent much or more of a roe harvester’s revenue for the year.
Under these regulations, fishers must keep records of sanitation and cleaning activities and daily logs of residuals in processing water. The administrative burden from these requirements is great for fishers working at remote fish camps.
If the regulations are implemented as proposed, many fishers particularly on the Middle and Upper Yukon River will be unable to continue to conduct their roe harvesting activities. This will have devastating effects on families and communities throughout the watershed.
The Future - DEC and Subsistence Fishing
It’s illegal to put up any traditional smokehouse fish products if they are intended to be part of customary trade as practiced all up and down the Yukon since contact. Even the transportation of the “adulterated products” as labeled by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is clearly illegal. That means that our elders who have been doing this all these years are lawbreakers and people who give them rides to town with their fish are also. Anyone who thinks that the future enforcement of this is not on the agenda of numbers of federal and state personnel needs their head examined. The fear of a political outcry from the native and rural community is the only thing keeping enforcement from the doors of fish camp smokehouses. DEC has admitted this is a line they are not interested in crossing at present.
As the pressures of regulations, permits, fish camp land use and lack of support from the very agencies often trusted with protecting this subsistence priority increase and the numbers of subsistence users continue to decrease it is only a matter of time before enforcement efforts will start (at least 2 instances in the lower river already have). Customary trade has always been a major part of subsistence in this area and at present is the major thing allowing many individuals to go to their camps each summer. Without it the majority of camps in this area would most certainly close - a situation I’m afraid would be looked on as positive by some.
Subsistence users, and organizations formed to help them and the native people of this state, need to fight to insure the stability of subsistence activities much more proactively if the next generation is to have anything of value left.
The following sub pages contain happy subsistence pictures and small text sections
Fishing info and Photo album
Trapping info and Photo album
Dog Mushing info and Photo album
Hunting Info and pictures
Commercial info and pictures of area commercial fishing.