Tribal consultation plays unofficial role in council process
Historical participation weighs heavily in fisheries management decisions, and Alaska Natives have thousands of years of history of fishing throughout the state, relying on salmon, halibut, crab, herring and other species for food and trade.
When it comes to management, however, the oldest users report mixed success in participating in the decision-making process.
Management decisions for Alaska’s fisheries are largely made by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the state Board of Fisheries.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, creates fishery management plans for federal waters, three to 200 miles offshore. The Board of Fisheries is responsible for rivers, lakes and the ocean out to three miles from Alaska’s coast. The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, executes the decisions made by the council, while the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages state waters on a day-to-day basis based on rules passed by the board.
Both structures incorporate public testimony into their processes, which Alaska Native tribes and organizations are entitled to participate in, but neither offers a role beyond that.
Rob Sanderson, second vice president for Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes, said that’s partially because when leaders agreed to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the law didn’t address aquatic resources.
“Everyone was too worried about the land, and they forgot about the sea,” Sanderson said.
In June, the North Pacific council took up several issues that had Alaska Natives organizations weighing in, including chinook salmon bycatch caps for Gulf of Alaska trawlers and Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons conservation and research.
Sanderson and Alaska Inter-Tribal Council’s George Pletnikoff testified at the meeting and both said they thought the council’s action was responsive to their testimony, and to that of other Alaska Native organizations.
Pletnikoff, who also works for Greenpeace, was part of a significant delegation asking the council to preserve the Bering Sea canyons.
The council’s action, which was to pursue an ecosystem management, was “courageous” he said in June after the decision was made.
Sanderson said he had heard from others involved in the council process that his testimony on bycatch had made a difference.
At the June meeting, he called for a lower bycatch cap, emphasizing that coastal communities in Southeast Alaska are dependent on salmon and halibut, and cannot afford to see those species decline. Ultimately, the council passed a lower cap on chinook salmon bycatch than he thought they would at the start of the meeting, Sanderson said.
But as responsive as the council can be, Sanderson would like a more formal role for Alaska Native stakeholders.
At the federal level, there’s a requirement that Tribes be consulted as part of the decision-making process.
A June opinion from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which was released as part of a policy statement on how the bodies that entity governs conduct tribal consultations, stated that federal fishery management councils are not responsible for doing so.
The policy statement acknowledges that council meetings are a critical part of fishery management, and that it’s most beneficial for Tribes and groups to get involved in that level. However, it confirms that the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, or NOAA, is ultimately responsible for working with tribes.
The clarification on fishery councils came after a comment on the proposed policy asked for a revision to require consultation at the council level.
Sanderson wants a designated seat on the council for an Alaska Native representative. After all, the fishing industry gets the majority of the seats, he said, so the 228 federally-recognized tribes should also have one.
There’s some precedent for Sanderson’s request, although the official opinion stated that it wasn’t necessary.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has oversight in federal waters offshore from California, Oregon and Washington, does have a dedicated seat for a Tribal representative. Federally-recognized tribes submit their nominations for that seat to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. The Pacific council also has 14 voting members, more than the 11 on the North Pacific council.
But a seat would be a start, Sanderson said. Then, it’d just be a matter of finding a representative the Alaska Native community could agree on, he said.
The current council chairman is Eric Olson, who is an Alaska Native and works for Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, one of the six Community Development Quota groups representing 65 Western Alaska villages that receive 10.7 percent of Bering Sea fishing quotas. Olson is also a shareholder in the Bristol Bay Native Corp., one of the 12 Alaska Native regional corporations.
For now though, both Sanderson and Pletnikoff have said indigenous groups also need to take a greater role in testifying and participating in the decisions.
In June, Pletnikoff said indigenous groups need to work on solutions for the canyons.
“It behooves us now for organizations interested to pay close attention to this issue as it develops and to demand a seat at the table,” Pletnikoff said.
Sanderson would like his colleagues from other tribes to get more involved at the council, particularly in bycatch. He testified again on the matter at the October council meeting, and said he was disappointed not to see greater representation.
“We need more Tribal people there to testify,” Sanderson said.
Not every item of the council agenda is of interest to noncommercial users, but Sanderson said it’s crucial that Alaska Natives weigh in.
“We are all dependent on some sort of fishery, at the least, the Natives that live on the gulf coast,” Sanderson said. “...We must do all that we can to protect what’s left.”
Sanderson said that it’s a crucial time for Alaska’s fisheries. The council is looking to rationalize the Gulf of Alaska, and has discussed bycatch several times in the last few years.
“I believe that there needs to be a process,” Sanderson said. “I believe that more tribes need to jump aboard on the issue of bycatch.”
Molly Dischner can be reached at email@example.com.