Fishing regulations on the Kuskokwim: Do they restrict Yup’ik culture, or preserve it?

Mayor of Akiak, Bobby Williams, reels in his net with his daughter Margaret. (Photo by Greg Kim, KYUK – Bethel)
Akiak Mayor Bobby Williams reels in his net with his daughter Margaret. (Photo by Greg Kim/KYUK)

The Kuskokwim River has now had three fishing openings for drift gillnets, but many people in Akiak are not happy. KYUK went fishing with the mayor of Akiak to find out more about why people’s nets aren’t as full as they want them.

In between drifts, Akiak Mayor Bobby Williams checked on his set net with his younger daughter Margaret. There were no fish, but there was something else unexpected attached to his net: a warning from the Alaska State Troopers for improperly marking his buoy.

“Could you see my name, Margaret?” Williams asked his daughter. “Look, right there. Could you see it? On the buoys? Dang!”

Williams was upset — and not just about this warning, but about the whole system of regulations governing fishing on the Kuskokwim. And the mayor is not alone.

“It’s not fun,” said Williams’ older daughter, Cynthia Ivan. “You get angry. I get angry.”

“Fishing is who we are,” Ivan said. She is a former tribal police officer who prides herself on her toughness, but her voice broke as she talked. “It’s what makes us Native and makes us unique. And for them to take that away from us, it’s taking away from our culture. They’re taking away who we are. It’s built into our DNA system. This is who we are, and this is who we want to be.”

Back on shore, Ivan walked around people’s fish camps asking if they’re happy with the size of their catch. Many said no.

She found her cousin Kimberly Smith cutting fish, prepping the salmon to be hung and dried.

Kimberly Smith (left) and Katie Phillip (right) cut fish with their kids while talking about the history and future of fishing in their culture. (Photo by Greg Kim/KYUK)

Smith said that the regulations aren’t necessarily making people go hungry, but that’s not the point.

“They tell us to rely on other species of fish, but the king salmon is so much of who we are as Yup’ik people,” Smith said. “It’s them trying to assimilate us to what they think we should be.”

Smith works in youth suicide prevention, and she said that the fishing regulations make her job harder.

“Our young men can’t go out and provide for their families, so they get depressed, and they start, you know, going into addiction, drugs, alcohol, all that,” Smith said.

Smith said Akiak feels isolated from the regulatory process.

“Even though we’re asked about what we want, it falls on deaf ears,” she said.

“I’m listening to them real closely,” said Ray Born, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who helps decide the fishing regulations on the lower Kuskokwim. “They’re a part of the land. They’re the people from here who should be able to inform me.”

Born manages the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, and he holds weekly meetings with representatives from villages along the Kuskokwim to talk about the regulations. He said that there are other forums to communicate with him, like their website, Facebook and KYUK’s Friday call-in show, “Talkline.”

But Born said that Akiak is just one of many villages that he needs to be listening to when deciding regulations.

“One person’s voice is important, but it needs to be balanced with the needs of everyone up and down the river.”

Megan Leary, from Aniak, is one of the tribal representatives advising Born every week. She said that she understands the feelings downriver in Akiak.

“You feel like a part of you is taken away when someone tells you you can’t do something you’ve been doing your whole entire life, your parents, your whole family has been doing,” Leary said.

But Leary wants to keep fishing her whole life, and she wants her family to be able to fish.

“I think about my son,” Leary said, “and being able to bring him out and letting him do the same things my parents did with us growing up. We’re having to give up right now so that in the future our kids and people’s grandkids, they can have the same opportunities as us.”

Akiak Elder Lillian Lliaban remembers a time sacrifice paid off: “Twenty years ago, they closed the moose (hunt) down for five years, and people were yapping this and that, ‘We’re gonna starve, blah blah blah.’ And the moose is everywhere now.”

Lliaban used to be against the regulations, but she’s changed her tune.

“We have to think about the future,” Lliaban said.