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Hooper Bay residents weigh in on the impact of fishing closures. 'It’s like taking away food from our table'

Inside Hooper Bay’s brown tribal council building, nearly 50 people gathered to hear more from state officials on why they decided to close chinook salmon fishing in the coastal area from the Naskanat Peninsula up to Point Romanof. That closure includes Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Chevak, Emmonak, Kotlik, Nunam Iqua, and Alakanuk.

State biologists said that the closure is intended to protect chinook salmon while they migrate upriver to spawn in Alaska and Canada. But most in the crowd were subsistence fishermen and fishing means survival.

“It’s like taking away food from our table,” said one person who testified.

Alaska Wildlife Trooper Sergeant Walter Blajeski arranged the meeting. He said that he wanted to give the community an opportunity to ask questions they might have on both fishing opportunities and restrictions.

“And, you know, I think the meeting was a success. Our goal was just that: to be available to answer questions and to provide maybe some explanation as to why restrictions were going to be occurring. And I think we accomplished that,” Blajeski said.

Non-salmon fishing will still be permitted during the closures, but with restrictions. Gillnets will be limited to 4-inch or smaller mesh and 60 feet or less in length. These nets must be operated as a setnet and should be set near shore.

Blajeski said that troopers can’t always enforce these regulations; they do it when weather and time permits.

“We don't often get to the coastal villages. But when we do, we usually go there, you know, for the day. And those types of enforcement patrols are usually conducted, you know, onshore in the village, walking around the village because we just don't have the resources to get out there,” Blajeski said.

Blajeski warned that anyone caught violating the regulations will be fined up to $500, though there is wiggle room.

“What we've seen over the last couple years, for people that don't have a history of violations, is a about $300 fine. We don't recommend to the court that we forfeit any fishing gear that would otherwise be legal,” Blajeski said.  

Blajeski said that the troopers don’t normally seize the fish either.

“And if we do seize fish, we would donate those fish to qualified charities such as Elders or people in need in the region,” Blajeski said.

Deena Jallen, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist and the Yukon River summer season manager, traveled to Hooper Bay for the meeting. She said that residents asked a lot of questions about commercial fishing in other areas of Alaska that may catch the same fish subsistence users are supposed to avoid.

In her role as the Yukon River summer season manager, she said that she often fields the same questions from all over the region.

“We often get questions and [statements] about Area M and the pollock fleet. We hear that a lot at every meeting that we come to,” Jallen said.

What makes Hooper Bay different from others is that it is a coastal community.

“In previous years, the coastal area has not been closed. They've had restrictions to 6-inch mesh, but they've typically been left open. They do catch some kings and summer chum as they migrate up along the coast of the Yukon River. So unfortunately, when there's no harvestable surplus, we do feel the need to close that district as well to hopefully reduce the harvest of king salmon as they travel up along the coast,” Jallen said.

Jallen said that she was happy to see the turnout as well as the level of participation.

"It's very understandable that people are very frustrated with the salmon and with the management actions in recent years," Jallen said.

Jallen said that the salmon in Hooper Bay are either bound for the Yukon River, where runs have been very low in recent years, or they could be headed to other streams either along the coast or in other areas of the state.

She also has concerns for king salmon runs across Western Alaska and particularly in the Yukon River area. Jallen said that the region didn't meet any of the escapement goals for king salmon last year.

“So any king salmon that's coming back either to the Yukon River or to a nearby spawning stream is likely to have a pretty low abundance this year, and so we're concerned for all of them. So even if that fish isn't specifically Yukon-bound, we haven't really seen anything that says, like, oh, well, this river is doing better or the stream is doing better,” Jallen said.

Fisheries managers said that they could loosen restrictions if the run is stronger than they’re projecting, but right now Jallen said that every district of the Yukon is going to be closed to king salmon fishing. Based on salmon run timing, those closures will work their way up through the entire Yukon area through all the districts and all the tributaries.

“I think just the main takeaway is that we know these management actions are very, very intensively managing subsistence. And we know it's incredibly frustrating. But we're only taking these actions because the runs are so low that there's no fish available for harvestable surplus," Jallen said.   

The frustration was palpable.

“You know, they wanted to ask questions, but a lot of the community members that were attending, after the meeting thought that, you know, they really didn't get any answers,” said Native Village of Hooper Bay Tribal Administrator Jan Olson.

Community members said that they need access to their subsistence foods.

“We don't do any commercial fishing, you know, we don't even go up to the Yukon or Black River to do any type of commercial fishing. All we do is stick around here and do subsistence fishing,” Olson said.

Olson said that there’s still confusion as to why they are being regulated. They need to fish to survive.

“We're not in it for the money. We are in it to put fish in our freezers for future use. And, you know, that's a big part of our diet there. You know, that's one thing that we missed,” Olson said.  

Remnants of Typhoon Merbook, which happened in fall 2022, caused major flooding in Hooper Bay. Families were displaced, homes were lost, people's stores of salmon and other subsistence foods were destroyed. The community relied on state assistance as well as donations of fish.

“You know, we're not bad people, you know, we just want to fish and, you know, it's just, we want the fish that we're accustomed to,” Olson said.

Olson, along with several other members of the community, said that these restrictions will make winter more challenging as many residents don't make enough money to buy more groceries.

Francisco Martínezcuello is the KYUK News Reporting Fellow and a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.