Angoon’s village Native corporation sent the federal government an unusual request in May of 2010.
Kootznoowoo Inc. filed a petition asking for extraterritorial jurisdiction. That would allow the feds to stop or limit salmon fishing in state-managed waters near Angoon on western Admiralty Island.
The petition said commercial seiners in the Chatham Strait area were taking too many sockeye salmon, reducing the run of fish in an important subsistence harvest. The corporation claimed the state had failed to manage for the subsistence priority required under federal law.
The feds recently said “no,” to the petition. Instead, they deferred action for three years to allow for a negotiated solution.
“There was a strong desire and feeling there in support from stakeholders to come together and work out a locally-based decision,” says Beth Pendleton, Alaska regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service.
The decision, sent to Kootznoowoo in late August, was signed by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Pendleton says it echoed recommendations from two federal subsistence panels.
“Their intention is to support the Southeast Regional Advisory Council and the Federal Subsistence Board in deferring a decision on the petition to allow time for the parties to come together to develop a locally developed solution to the issues,” she says.
The decision is not what Kootznoowoo asked for. But corporation President and General Manager Peter Naoroz says it at least focuses attention on the problem.
“I see this as part of this long process we’ve been undertaking. It appears as if we’re taking a step forward and it appears as if the feds are living up to their commitment,” he says.
Naoroz says Angoon leaders have been seeking a solution to the sockeye shortage for about 10 years.
“A lot of our work fell on deaf ears until March of this year. And the reason people were listening more intently in March was that we filed a petition,” he says.
Naoroz says he can’t give a detailed reaction to the federal government’s rejection of that petition. That’s because his board of directors has not yet met to discuss the issue. He expects that to happen soon.
Seiners, meanwhile, deny they’re taking Angoon’s subsistence salmon. They’ve opposed the petition all along.
United Fishermen of Alaska Chief Administrator Mark Vinsel says the feds are right — talks are the way to go.
“We do appreciate that they defer to the recommendation of the subsistence board for the state management process to have an opportunity to engage with the Board of Fisheries and help make sure that all users to get access to the fish,” Vinsel says.
Southeast Seiners Association Executive Director Bob Thorstenson Jr. could not be reached for immediate comment.
Pendleton of the Forest Service says the agency is looking for someone to bring the different interests together and moderate their meetings.
“We’ve begun to look at some possible third-party mediators and we anticipate in the next few weeks to award a contract to a mediator,” she says.
She’s optimistic negotiations will work, and would not speculate on what might happen if they fail. The letter announcing the decision says federal officials will take other measures if the meetings do not solve the problem.
In the meantime, the Forest Service has been planning to ease fish passage to Kanalku Lake, where Angoon residents harvest subsistence sockeyes. That could help increase the salmon population.
“It is the number one fisheries priority project for the Tongass National Forest next year,” says Wayne Owen, the agency’s wildlife, fish and watershed director.
He says plans call for construction of what’s called a variable fish ladder.
“They can adjust the water flow to make it more or less easy for the fish to get up so they can reach a certain biologically determined number of fish that return,” Owen says.
He says other action might be taken, such as fertilizing the lake to increase fish production. That’s what’s been done at Sitka’s Redoubt Lake, which feeds one of Southeast’s most productive sport and subsistence salmon sites.
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