Japanese Salmon Fleet Threatens Yukon Native Economy


Living within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of Southwestern Alaska is the largest population of indigenous Native Americans still practicing the subsistence way of life. Hunting and gathering is the prime occupation of over 16,000 Central Yup'ik Eskimos. A mixed economy of subsistence, government transfer payments, and limited market employment characterize the economy. The Wade-Hampton and Bethel census districts are the two poorest election districts in the State of Alaska, but the land is honeycombed with lakes and the Bering Sea teems with fish. The Eskimo people do not go hungry.

The most significant economic resource is subsistence and commercial fishing. Among the Yup'ik Eskimo, chinook or "king" salmon, one of five Pacific salmon subspecies, is the most sought-after food source. This king salmon derives its name from its size. Twelve year old females may reach 100 pounds. Its large body can be cut into strips, and smoked for winter food, its backbone meat for dogfood, and its skin used for all-weather boots.

Kings are also the most valued commercial salmon. Twenty-two percent of its body weight is fat, making it the world's choice smoked fish. Modern competition for this rare fish is intense, and now pits the Eskimo - formerly at peace in his harsh northern environment - against the high technology fishing fleets of modern Japan.

The Delta is the size of the New England States, New York, and Pennsylvania. The Yukon and Kuskokwim River deltas and numerous tributaries trisect the 48,000 square miles of flat, treeless terrain bordered by the Kilbuck Mountains south of the Kuskokwim River, the Andrefski Mountains north of the Yukon River, and the Bering Sea.

The Yup'ik, formally a nomadic people, would migrate to seasonal harvest locations following the route of their prey. They dwellings were tents and sod huts burrowed into the ground and insulated with one foot of compressed tundra. The Central Yup'ik Eskimos of the Delta now live in 46 modern village sites that include public and church buildings that use modern technology and are externally subsidized. The traditional village of small frame houses is supported by government transfer payments, income from erratic episodes of wage employment, cash generated from commercial fishing, and the sale of raw fur and Alaska Native handcrafts.

Fish comprise the largest portion of the aboriginal diet. The most recent surveys conducted by the region's Native resource organization, Nunam Kitlutsisti, (Protectors of the Land), showed that 16,000,000 lbs. of wildlife protein was harvested for family consumption. Fish represented 72 percent of the protein harvest throughout the region. The marine or upland location of the year-round village would determine the percentage of marine mammals or land mammals, waterfowl, and vegetarian in the rest of the diet.

Japanese Salmon Fleet

Among the fish taken for subsistence, salmon represent the most significant single species. But that prime protein source is now threatened by the International North Pacific Fisheries Treaty (INPFT), a 35-year-old international agreement between Japan, Canada, and the United States. The U.S. government allows a Japanese salmon fleet access to the U.S. 200-nautical-mile zone to harvest salmon of U.S. origin. In exchange, Japan pledges to limit its fishing of U.S. salmon stocks on the high seas.

During the course of the annual high seas salmon operation, the Japanese target immature chinook salmon - the highest valued marine form of salmon. Although take of kings is limited by both Soviet and Although take of kings is limited by both Soviet and U.S. agreements with Japan, the lack of significant observer coverage by these states opens a window of opportunity for large Japanese catches of this threatened species so vital to the Yup'ik Eskimo.

Unregulated mixed stock salmon fishing on the high seas historically resulted in spawning crises. Because king salmon reach maturity last, and are the smallest in population among the pacific salmon, kinds are most susceptible to overharvest, and population crashes. For this reason, the U.S., Russia, and Canada have deliberately sought to reduce Japanese ocean fishing of salmon stocks, especially kings.

Claims of massive Japanese violations of North Pacific salmon fishing were routine before enactment of the INPFT, but high seas enforcement to curb the Japanese ocean salmon fishery was nonexistent. Two recent events have sharply curtailed Japans, ability to cull the stocks of other states. First, many states that border oceans have established extended marine jurisdiction up to 200 nautical miles (nm). In a deliberate effort to protect their salmon, many natal states extended jurisdictional claims to their anadramous stocks beyond these new zones, and into the high seas. New international salmon law emerged from the United Nation's Law of the Sea conferences that supported these unilateral efforts by salmon spawning states. Japan concurred, but the Japanese ocean salmon fleets became more evasive.

The Soviets publicly cited 138 serious Japanese violations of salmon harvest levels and fishing in closed waters in the 1986 USSR-Japanese Fisheries Treaty. In September 1986 Yup'ik Eskimo representatives explained to the United States Senate how deliberate Japanese efforts to camouflage their interception of endangered marine mammals and chinook salmon was a threat to the Eskimo subsistence way of life. The Eskimo presentation revealed U.S. acquiescence to Japanese violation of U.S. conservation laws within the U.S. 200nm zone.

Japanese success in ocean salmon fishery requires a well-equipped fleet that covers thousands of ocean miles. This fleet is comprised of a floating processing ship, called a "mothership," 600 feet long, crewed by 300 people. Each mothership is supplied with salmon by 42 catcher boats, each 140 feet long, with a crew of 35. At night, each catcher boat launches 12 miles of plastic fishing nets. The net is retrieved in the morning with its take of salmon. Mammals are killed by the thousands, and birds by the tens of thousands in drownings incidental to the salmon being targeted by the Japanese.

The Japanese harvest kings two years before they are due to return to their streams of origin to spawn. In 1980, the Japanese salmon fleet took over 700,000 chinooks. Combined Japanese catch of chinooks in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean was over 1,000,000 for the 1980 fishing year. In 1982, two years after the record 1980 harvest, reproductive failure of kings occurred throughout western Alaska. Japanese harvest of kings continued unabated even while the spawning population dropped. From 1982 through 1986, five successive years of too few kings getting to the spawning grounds has failed to move the U.S. government to intercede. Instead, the fishing rights of inshore Yup'ik Eskimos have been curtailed. The state of Alaska has eliminated the commercial king salmon fishery, the largest money source for the Yup'ik Eskimos. Facing the prospect of continued Japanese pillage of Yukon and Kuskokwim kings at sea, the state of Alaska is now proposing to reduce the subsistence take by Eskimos, thus allowing the few chinook that escape Japanese nets to spawn and produce a new generation of kings for future Japanese high seas take.

Native and Environmentalist Protests

In order to protect their way of life, Eskimos have joined with national environmental groups to challenge the issuance of a marine mammal permit required by the Japanese to continue their salmon fishing within the U.S. 200nm zone. Information provided by Eskimos and environmentalist have undermined the United States and Japanese arguments for reissuance of the permit. The decision to grant a permit is expected no later than May 10 by a federal administration intimidated by Japanese threats of increased high seas salmon take if the permit is withheld.

In 1986, the U.S. Government signed a bilateral agreement with Japan that forbids any new U.S. effort to conserve salmon by reducing Japanese ocean salmon fishing before 1991. At that time, the U.S. could press for additional ocean restrictions pending results of scientific information on salmon nation-of-origin research generated from the agreement. Under this rule, Yup'iks may not expect improved runs of chinook prior to 1994.

Many Yup'ik fishermen believe that their small cash economy will be in ruins by then. The previously self-sufficient Yup'iks feel that they have little choice. A halt to the ocean fishing of chinooks by the Japanese in 1987 would start to increase king runs in the Yup'ik Eskimo region by 1989. The Eskimos and environmentalists are considering going to court to challenge the issuance of the marine mammal permit. Without the permit, the Japanese fleet cannot enter the U.S. 200nm zone. Yup'ik Eskimos see the end of Japanese ocean salmon fishing as the start of rebuilding their shattered culture and economy.

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