ANCHORAGE, Alaska — U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents say hundreds of pounds of subsistence caught salmon are being sold illegally by subsistence users, but residents disagree.
The feds say they are primarily focusing on salmon strips from the Yukon River. Agents say during an undercover investigation several subsistence users were willing to sell them the strips.
The Yukon River's poor salmon runs this year prompted federal action in the form of a $5 million paycheck for disaster relief.
Commercial and sports fishermen have been shut out of the area completely and subsistence fishing is limited.
Subsistence fishermen say there's not enough to feed their families, but federal agents have accused some subsistence users of abusing their rights.
It's called customary trade. Under state law it's illegal to sell subsistence salmon. Federal law say it is permitted, but only if it's a subsistence user selling to another subsistence user.
The feds say that's not what's happening on the Yukon.
“A few people selling significant quantities of fish for a lot of money,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Stan Pruszenski.
At the Federal Subsistence Board meeting, Fish and Wildlife agents discussed their lengthy undercover investigation.
Agents posed as a business wanting to buy subsistence salmon strips and then re-sell them.
“What we did find was that there are a lot of people engaged in this activity,” Pruszenski said.
Federal agents recently raided several subsistence users homes, confiscating what they believed were salmon strips that were to be sold.
But the actions didn't go over well with the Alaska Federation of Natives.
At this year’s AFN Convention in Faibanks, former Alaska State Sen. Georgianna Lincoln described on of these raids, “Agents swarming her property, confiscated empty jars, bags of empty jars, cases of her precious fish.”
Lincoln accused federal agents of unfairly harassing subsistence users and taking fish meant to feed families.
“She was processing food for her family, mother, her extended family and I can tell you 19 cases of fish doesn't go far,” said Lincoln.
The subsistence coordinator for the Tlingit and Haida Indian tribes, Floyd Kookesh, said the feds are targeting tradition.
“We’re not want and waste. We’re not raping and pillaging. No matter what law enforcement does to us it's not going to deter. It's just going to criminalize us and by regulating we'll be killing communities,” said Kookesh.
According to Kookesh, even if it is illegal, it's a way of life.
“I would ask, what's wrong with that? Is the preferred alternative to go rob a bank, to get by because you know people are just trying to make it the way they have customarily and traditionally done?” said Kookesh.
It's unknown when a strong salmon run will return to the Yukon, but if federal agents have it their way the salmon will stay in the hands of subsistence users.
The investigation is ongoing. There have been no charges filed yet and federal agents say they don't know when that will happen, but say several people could face charges in the future.