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Managing Competition: The Copper River Fishery

William E.

For the Ahtna Athabaskans living along the Copper River in southcentral Alaska, salmon have been essential to their economic and cultural survival for 1,000 years. From mid-May to August, the Ahtna have always congregated at the fish camps along the river. Today, Copper River salmon are still vital to traditional Ahtna culture, but the river is now almost entirely accessible by road. As a result, the Copper River has become a classic example of competition between user groups.

Since the turn of the century, a commercial fishery capable of harvesting all the fish has operated at the mouth of the Copper River. Since mid-century, urban centered sport and personal-use fisheries have developed in the places traditionally used by the Ahtna. The state of Alaska has been trying to manage these competing uses. Because the state cannot restrict subsistence permits to only the Ahtna or only rural residents, the Ahtna are faced with a growing and potentially unregulated competition from urban fishers.

The Early Commercial Fishery

Between 1889 and 1905, a commercial fishery targeting Copper River stocks of salmon developed at the mouth and within the river. The commercial fishery expanded and by 1919, there were salmon shortages for the Ahtna. In response, the Bureau of Fisheries launched investigations along the Copper River confirming the problem. Yet the Department of Commerce was reluctant to restrict the commercial fishery, believing the problem lay not with the canneries, but with the Ahtna who would never compete "if they continue to adhere to their primitive methods of fishing and to their original customs and attitudes of indifference toward continued and persistent effort and industry." Nevertheless, the destruction of the Copper River salmon stocks was forecast and federal regulations were adopted in 1918 to partially close the river to commercial fishing. As stocks remained depressed, all commercial salmon fishing was prohibited within the fiver beginning in 1921 and finalized in 1924 by Congress in the White Act. Since the 1930s, a commercial fishery has continued at the mouth of the Copper River, regulated by federal and later state management.

Opening the Copper River Basin

In 1899, the Copper River valley became the "all-American route" to the Klondike gold fields. To facilitate development, the U.S. government built a trail and telegraph line through the Copper River basin. During WWII, the government improved and constructed a highway system providing access to the Copper River from Alask's main population centers of Fairbanks and Anchorage. During the oil boom, Alaska's urban population grew so rapidly that by 1995, about 75% of the state's population was situated within a day's drive from the Copper River. This population growth has placed increasing pressure on Copper River salmon.

Early State Regulation-the 1960s

Soon after statehood in 1959, Alaska imposed regulations on the Copper River subsistence fishery that defined seasons, open areas, seasonal harvest limits, gear types, and rules on who could participate in the fishery. In 1964, the Alaska Board of Fisheries and Game limited subsistence salmon fishing to the main stem of the Copper River and closed Ahtna fishing sites on major tributaries. These waters remained open to sport fishing with hook and line gear. At the same time, a management plan for the subsistence fishery was adopted that provided a preference during shortages to local residents with low incomes.

The Ahtna responded to the new regulations by asking for a voice in the decision making process. In June of 1964, Markle E Ewan Sr., an Ahtna in the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), wrote to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), disagreeing with the regulations which placed seasonal limits on subsistence harvests. Ewan stated that:

"The majority of our Indian people don't have deep freezes, therefore our main dependable storage food is dried, smoked, salted and canned fish. Believe it or not-one person can eat as much as two fish a day, whether fresh or otherwise. So please permit us to get as much as we need. As you know, we don't take or waste any fish or game like so many sport fishermen and hunters do. We are God-abiding citizen people. I don't believe the whole Copper River tribe will get as much fish in a whole season in Copper River area as the commercial fishermen would get in one day."

In the early 1960s, fishwheels continued to account for most of the Copper River subsistence harvest, as they had before statehood. But by the late 1960s, a growing dip net fishery by urban residents (particularly from Fairbanks) developed. The dip net fishery was concentrated on the lower portion of the river, just below the town of Chitina, in an area historically used by the Ahtna.

In 1966, ADF&G responded to the increasing number of dip net fishermen and poor salmon escapements by ordering the subsistence fishery to open on June 15th instead of June 1st. In a letter, Governor William Egan outlined the problem from the state's perspective for Amos Wallace, president of the ANB Camp 20. Egan stressed a need to develop controls over a growing salmon fishery that was easily accessible by road. He noted that the number of subsistence fishermen had increased from about 200 to 1,200, acknowledged that only 126 were actually from the Copper River basin, and stated that most of the basin residents qualified for larger quotas based on their income.

The Ahtna, however, did not accept the state's assessment of the problem, nor the method of imposing the new restriction on fishing times. Harry Johns, president of ANB Camp No. 31 wrote to ADF&G on May 24, 1966 stating his people's concern over the late opening and lack of communication between ADF&G and the local people. Mr. Johns wrote:

"We, the following citizens of the Copper Center and Gulkana area, are greatly concerned and upset by the fact that the State Fish and Game Department has seen fit to stop our people from fishing by fishwheel for subsistence fish.

"Not only have we been cut down on the numbers of fish we can catch, but over the years, people of this area are not even contacted or asked their opinions. This leads all of us to believe the state does not care what we think, or how the people of the Copper River Basin are to live if they are not allowed to catch these fish for their livelihood [as] in the past.

"This is our means of protesting this stopping of our fishing rights, and to notify your office we, the native people of this area hope you will change this before it's too late.

"This is also to notify your office that we, the citizens of Copper Center Area, will be putting our fishwheels in on the first of June as we have in the past."

The Ahtna also appealed for statewide support and in an article dated May 27, 1966, the Anchorage Times reported that the "Copper River Indian Council" issued a call for support from the Native people from Ketchikan to Barrow "to back their rights to fish for salmon in the Copper River as of June 1st." The state retreated and opened the subsistence fishery on time. In a letter to Harry Johns, Governor Egan wrote that the order for the June 15th opening had been rescinded "because the good catches of salmon by commercial fishermen on the fiats indicated an adequate escapement of spawners up the fiver." The governor went on to assure Mr. Johns that the "department will be in closer contact with you in the future and that the state does care about the welfare of the Indian people."

The 1970s and Early 1980s

Problems in the fishery persisted throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. During the 1978 season, ADF&G, fearing low escapements, closed the fishwheel and dip net fisheries during the week. The Copper River Native Association (CRNA) objected, saying the closure favored non-basin residents who fished weekends over basin residents and made it hard for Native people to dry fish properly. Four Ahtna elders were arrested and their fish wheels locked up for attempting to fish during the week. When the Copper River Advisory Committee met to address the issue, Robert Marshal, speaking for the majority of Ahtna, said that he did not like the way the closure was handled. "Indians need fish to survive," Marshal said, "The older people cannot survive without fish through the winter! Indian people [elders] did not come right out and say but they are actually begging to be able to catch fish." The advisory board moved that ADF&G open subsistence fishing on the Copper River weekly and following the committee's suggestion, ADF&G modified the original emergency measure allowing low income permit holders to fish seven days a week.

In 1978, the Alaska legislature passed Alaska's first subsistence statute, providing a preference for subsistence over other uses of fish and wildlife. This statute directed that in times of shortage, a preference be given to subsistence users based on customary and direct dependence, availability of alternative resources, and local residency. Beginning in 1980, regulations for the upper Copper River subsistence fishery began to reflect the new statute. Initially, subsistence permits were issued individually to persons who showed the greatest level of need for subsistence salmon on the basis of customary and direct dependence upon the resource as the mainstay of one's livelihood, local residency, and availability of alternative resources. The regulations defined four classes of permits with eligibility based on age, income, history of use of the fishery, residency, household size, and employment. Seasonal limits were linked to eligibility for certain permit classes, and allocations above 30 salmon per household were limited to those with incomes under $6,000. Weekly fishing opportunities varied by run strength and permit class.

At the same time, another spectacular increase in participation by urban residents occurred in both the dip net and fishwheel fisheries. There were a number of explanations for this growth: strong runs and consequent increases in fishing time, publicity about the fishery, new restrictions on subsistence fisheries in the Cook Inlet Area, and continued growth of Alaska's urban areas.

The "Rural Residency" Solution

To deal with these increases, in 1984 the Board of Fisheries used "rural residency" for the first time as a basis for managing the fishwheel and dip net fisheries. The Board concluded that the uses of the Copper River salmon stocks as they occurred in the portion of the river above Chitina were customary and traditional subsistence uses. The predominant use pattern in this subdistrict was characterized by long-term use by Copper Basin communities; efficient use of fishwheels operated at traditional sites near people's homes that fit into a local mixed subsistence-cash economy; and kinship-based production groups who taught skills and values to young family members. Regulations limited participation in this subsistence fishery in this area only to residents of the Copper River Basin and certain communities of the Upper Tanana area.

For the growing dip net fishery at Chitna, the Board concluded that the fishery did not meet the criteria of customary and traditional subsistence use. This fishery had developed over the previous two decades, consisted mostly of short-term users, and was relatively inefficient because participants had to travel relatively long distances for small harvests. In this part of the river, the Board authorized a personal use fishery with dip nets and fishwheels to provide a continuing opportunity for non-rural Alaskans to harvest salmon for home use, but with lower bag limits that the subsistence fishery.

Under this approach, the fishwheel fishery in which the Ahtna participated was provided special recognition and protection as a rural subsistence fishery open only to rural residents. As a consequence of these regulatory actions, the number of subsistence-mostly fishwheel-permits issued in 1984 dropped, since this continued to be the gear of choice among basin residents. Subsistence harvests leveled off and the problem of uncontrolled growth was solved for a while.

Rural Residency Undone

The rural solution was undone in December 1989, when the Alaska Supreme Court in the McDowell case found the provisions of the state statute which limited participation in subsistence hunting and fishing to rural residents to be unconstitutional. After 1990, subsistence fishing for salmon on the Copper River was open once again to all Alaska residents. Participation and harvests from the Upper Copper River subsistence fishery again began to increase due to urban fishers. From 1990 through 1996 the number of subsistence fishwheel permits rose from 406 to 850. Not surprisingly, most of this increase was from urban residents.

The Uncertain Future

Management of the Copper River subsistence fishery has an uncertain future. For the Ahtna, the problem is an ever-growing number of urban-based participants who create crowding and pressure for ever more restrictive regulations. Under current statues, the state cannot limit permits for newcomers to protect the established subsistence fishery of the Ahtna or other local rural residents. Protecting an Alaska Native fishery for the Ahtna alone is not legal under state statutes because the Congress did not recognize aboriginal fisheries under Native land claims. Protecting a rural subsistence fishery for rural residents alone is not legal under state statutes either, because the state's constitution requires that every Alaska resident to be treated equally in terms of access to fish and game. The burgeoning numbers of urban participants impact the Ahtna and also create allocation issues for the commercial fishery at the Copper River mouth, since by law, subsistence users have a priority over commercial fishing, even when those users are from urban areas.

How is growth to be dealt with? Some limits on the subsistence fishwheel fishery can be set by Ahtna Incorporated, who owns portions of the river bank. The corporation can invoke trespass restrictions as private land owners and stem the growth of the fishery along the sections of the river under its ownership. However, in the long run, limits on growth in the fishery can come in only two ways -- either by changing laws to allow for restrictions based on residency or tribal membership, or by restricting the fisheries' seasons, bags, and methods as more users enter the fishery. For the Ahtna, only the first method, which limits participants, holds the promise for protecting a traditional way of life.


I would like to acknowledge the help of Jim Fall and Bob Wolfe in the preparation of this paper.


Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). 1980. Subsistence Fishing Regulations. Juneau.

Bower, Ward T. and Henry D. Allen. 1917. Alaska Fisheries and Fur Industries in 1915. Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 834. US. Government Printing Office.

Egan, William. 1966. Letter from Governor Wm. Egan to Amos Wallace, President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp No. 20, June 14, 1966. Files, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Glennallen.

Letter from Governor Wm. Egan to Harry Johns, President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp No. 31, June 1, 1966. Files, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Glennallen.

Ewan, Markle F. Sr. 1964. Letter to Ralph Pirtle, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, June 1,1964. Files, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Glennallen.

Gilbert, C. H. 1921. Letter to Dr. H.M. Smith, Commissioner of Fisheries, November 19, 1921. Reports and Related Records 1869 - 1937. Records of Division of Alaska Fisheries. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. National archives, Washington, DC.

Johns, Harry Sr. 1966. Letter from Harry Johns, President Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp No. 31 to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, May 24, 1966. Files, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Glennallen.

Redfield, William. 1917. "Order Regulating Salmon Fishery of Copper River Drainage, December 19, 1917." Alaska Salmon Fisheries, 1908-1940. Office of the Territories. national Archives, Washington, DC.

Roberson, Kenneth, Bird, and Fridgen. 1978. Copper River Prince William Sound Sockeye Salmon Catalog and Inventory. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Commercial Fisheries.

Thompson, Seton H. 1964. The Red Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) of Copper River, Alaska. Manuscript Report. 1964. US. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. Biological Laboratory, Auke Bay, Alaska.

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