US Senate holds field hearing on impact of Alaska salmon declines on tribes

A photo from the field hearing.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) held a field hearing in Bethel, Alaska, U.S.A. last week to hear concerns about how declining salmon runs are affecting native communities.

“It is significant and historic to bring the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to Bethel to understand how the salmon crashes in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region are affecting those of you who live here,” Murkowski, the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indians Affairs (SCIA), said. “I have heard how the lack of salmon is affecting your ways of life and the need for the federal government to pay attention, to understand, and to act. We brought the committee to Bethel so those in the region and surrounding villages who are most impacted can be heard and offer potential solutions on the official record.”

Tribal representatives painted a dire picture.

“We are at a tipping point – if the state and federal agencies don’t start acting on things within their control, our salmon are not going to recover,” Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) Chairman Thaddeus Tikiun Jr. said. “I see today’s hearing as turning point in this crisis, because it signals the committee’s willingness to support our region, and our way of life.”

Tikiun and others called for changes to U.S. laws to prioritize salmon recovery and incorporate traditional knowledge into fisheries regulations.

“It is time to amend ANILCA [the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act] to protect, once and for all, Alaska Native and rural subsistence rights, and consider amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act or other legislation that will prioritize salmon recovery, include our traditional knowledge, and honor the test responsibility that the United States government owes to our tribal communities,” Tikiun said.

Murkowski acknowledged that traditional knowledge needs to be considered in fisheries management, something that is being explored by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).

“I've also heard that the traditional knowledge that you bring to the table has led long before much of the science or the actual management actions that come,” Murkowski said. “We need to be paying attention to that aspect of knowledge that you bring to the table.”

Witnesses also continued to criticize regulators for prioritizing commercial fishing operations over subsistence fishing.

“What’s happening in our villages is unfair – our subsistence fishing has the least impact on the salmon crash, yet we are the only ones being restricted and prevented from practicing our way of life,” AVCP CEO Vivian Korthuis said. “We need immediate action to find solutions to this crisis. That won’t happen unless both the federal government and the state government are willing to listen to and partner with tribes.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee for the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies recently collected testimony on annual funding for the Department of the Interior and related agencies. Several tribal groups used the opportunity to alert legislators to their plight and to lobby for continued spending on salmon recovery efforts.

“Access and use of our treaty secured natural resources has been diminished significantly over time,” Naisqually Indian Tribe Chairman William Frank III said in written testimony.

“As recently as the 1980s, and throughout time, Nisqually Tribal members regularly fished 8 months a year on the river that bears our name,” Frank said. “By 2015, fishing time has been constrained to a mere 8 days to conserve the diminishing resource for future generations. Eight days is not using our homelands and waters as promised; 8 days is not practicing our cultures and traditions; and 8 days is not honoring the promises contained in the Treaty of Medicine Creek.”

Witnesses asked lawmakers to increase funding for several salmon recovery initiatives, many of which are designed to assist tribal efforts.

“The Fish Hatchery Operations Program and the Fish Hatchery Maintenance Program provide critical resources that help Tribes, like Muckleshoot, maintain our salmon fisheries and treaty fishing rights,” Muckleshoot Indian Tribe Chairman Jaison Elkins said in written testimony, asking lawmakers to increase funding for those and other related programs. “Tribal hatchery funding is critical to ensure the continued success of the White River Hatchery, as well as other Tribal hatcheries across the Nation. Without Tribal hatcheries, our ability to exercise treaty fishing rights is diminished.”

Earlier this month the U.S. House passed its version of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2024 earlier this month, but the Senate has not yet passed its version. This week, Congress passed a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown and give lawmakers more time to pass fiscal 2024 appropriations bills.

Photo courtesy of the Office of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski


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