Feds sue state over salmon fishing rules on the Kuskokwim

A persons arm is seen holding a salmon
Kuskokwim king salmon caught near Bethel in 2018. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The federal government is suing the state of Alaska over its management of salmon fishing on the Kuskokwim River.

The lawsuit says the state is violating Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act by allowing all Alaska residents, no matter where they live, to engage in subsistence fishing of king and chum salmon when there isn’t enough fish for all uses. But ANILCA specifies that the subsistence preference is for “rural Alaska residents.”

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

For years, both the state and federal governments have managed fisheries in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, which covers virtually all of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Sometimes their rules conflict. For instance, in June of 2021, the state declared the lower Kuskokwim open to subsistence gill nets while federal managers said it was closed, to protect the resource.

Kevin Whitworth, interim director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, sees the lawsuit as beneficial to tribes and rural residents.

“The fish commission is heartened to see the federal government basically stand up to protect salmon and the importance of federal management,” he said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office referred questions to the state Department of Law. The department’s spokesperson, Assistant Attorney General Grace Lee, said the state’s management is based on sound science and input from local stakeholders.

“This ensures that there are adequate subsistence opportunities for Alaskans while adhering to the sustainability principle enshrined in the Alaska Constitution,” she said in an email.

The conflict over subsistence has been brewing for a few decades. The heart of the problem remains the same: Federal law mandates that rural residents’ subsistence needs come first in times of scarcity. State law doesn’t allow a rural preference, the state Supreme Court decided in 1989.

When the Legislature would not change state law to conform to ANILCA in the 1990s, the U.S. government took over management of fishing on federal land and adjacent rivers. But it delegated much of that management to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The lawsuit names Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and his department as defendants.

KYUK reporter Olivia Ebertz contributed to this story from Bethel.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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