This morning I saw subsistence living in action. Because my little group (affectionately called the “C Team”) was not able to go on the trip to the village a few days ago, Dr. O’Keefe arranged for us to go along with Tad to check his family’s fishing nets. Tad is a high school science teacher and a Pentecostal minister and was able to explain to us how the nets worked, identified the fish he was pulling out of the water, and demonstrated how he broke the gills of the fish to bleed them out.
Tad described how his wife’s family has been fishing in that particular channel for several generations and how the smaller net size, which complied with the salmon fishing restrictions, meant that he would catch mostly red salmon and not king salmon.
Other types of fish will run up the river in the coming months but for the people in Bethel and surrounding villages who rely on fish as their only source of food, depending on only the possibility of food means the possibility of food insecurity.
Later today the writing team had the opportunity to sit in on a hearing about the subsistence restrictions at the Office of Fish and Game. The meeting included representatives from the government, several conservation groups, and local village elders. It was interesting to see the conflict between the governmental conservation groups and the native people.
Local citizens are devastated by the fishing restrictions (which include only fishing with nets with smaller sized mesh to prevent catching king salmon) because they believe it threatens not only their cultural way of life, but also their access to the one of the only foods they eat. I heard local people say things like “we are scared,” “why should a sacred way of life conform to a permit system?” and even a warning by a tribal council leader who said that local people will start defending their rights to fish with guns and violence.
The government is trying to conserve the king salmon for future generations because of the monitoring of low populations of the fish for the past several years. They are trying to impose conservation restrictions that are similar to those in the lower 48. However, the other states in the union do not have a majority who keeps a sacred way of life through hunting and gathering. This intimate connection with food is not practiced in other parts of the country.
This situation is difficult because both the natives and the government have noble goals that conflict one another. It is hard to pick sides because both sides have valid points, and it is arguable whether conservation or tradition should be held in higher value. Both parties are trying to respect the land but are doing it through the lens of two different cultures. Ideally the run of later fish up the river quells the fears of subsistence fishers and the government works to respect the common way of life in the region, but time will tell.