In Alaska, subsistence
generally refers to the practice of taking fish, wildlife or other wild
resources for one's sustenance - for food, shelter or other personal or
Subsistence has been elemental
to Alaska Natives and their cultures for thousands of years. It also has
become a way of life for many non-Natives in Alaska. Subsistence is
recognized by the United States and by the State of Alaska as the
highest-priority consumptive use of resources in the state.
Subsistence hunting and
fishing provide a large share of the food supply in rural Alaska.
According to the state Division of Subsistence, about 44 million pounds
of wild foods are taken annually by residents of rural Alaska, or about
375 pounds per person per year. This compares to 22 pounds per year
harvested by Alaska's urban residents. Fish comprise 60 percent of
subsistence foods taken annually. Ninety-five percent of rural
households consume subsistence-caught fish, according to the state.
Subsistence is a controversial political topic
because managing subsistence involves making decisions about who has access to
Alaska's valuable fish and wildlife resources. Disagreements about subsistence
arise between and within different groups, including urban and rural Alaska
residents, Natives and non-Natives, subsistence users and non-subsistence users,
state lawmakers and other groups. Disagreements include who should
get rights to subsistence, how resources are allocated under subsistence
provisions, and how such decisions are made.
a controversial legal issue until the late 1970s, when demands of a growing
state population started putting the squeeze on Alaska’s available fish
and game, and resource managers increasingly were forced to choose
between users. But the underpinnings of the management controversy can
be traced to Alaska statehood in 1959.
On becoming a state, Alaska
took over responsibility for managing subsistence from the federal
government when it gained authority for managing fish and wildlife.
State control of fish and wildlife was a leading argument for statehood,
as Alaskans criticized federal fishery management as favoring outside
interests and unresponsive to resident needs. The new Alaska
Constitution established that fish and wildlife “are reserved to the
people for common use” and that “no exclusive right or special privilege
of fishery shall be created or authorized.”
[Alaska Constitution, Article VIII ]
For the United States federal
government, the question of subsistence surfaced in 1971 when Congress
was drafting the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The act addressed Native land claims that clouded construction of the
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. It extinguished aboriginal hunting and
fishing rights in Alaska in exchange for almost $1 billion in cash and 44
million acres of land.
ANCSA didn’t explicitly protect
subsistence, but a Congressional conference report issued with the new law
stated that Native subsistence practices and subsistence lands would be
protected by the State of Alaska and U.S. Department of Interior.
Congress made good on that
promise in 1980, when it passed the landmark Alaska National Interest
Lands Conservation Act [ANILCA].
Besides creating new national wildlife
refuges and public recreation lands, ANILCA mandated that the state
maintain a subsistence hunting and fishing preference for rural
residents on federal public lands or forfeit its management of subsistence uses
The State of Alaska, which had
established its own subsistence law in 1978, took note of the
discrepancy between the laws and amended state law in 1986 to match
ANILCA by limiting subsistence uses to rural residents. The fix,
however, didn’t last long. In 1989, the state Supreme Court ruled that
the rural preference violated Alaska Constitution, including its “common use” provisions
regarding use of fish and wildlife.
As the state no longer
guaranteed a rural preference for subsistence as required by ANILCA, the
federal government moved to take over management of subsistence on
federal public lands. Several attempts by the state to reconcile the two
laws by amending the Alaska Constitution failed when supporters couldn’t
muster enough votes in the Alaska Legislature to send a constitutional
amendment to the state’s voters. Federal managers took over authority
for subsistence on federal lands on July 1, 1990.
In 1995, the U.S. Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals, in adjudicating Katie John vs. United
States, ruled that ANILCA’s subsistence priority extends to
freshwater bodies within and alongside federal public lands. The
decision pushed the federal government into management of subsistence fisheries.
Realizing that federal
subsistence fisheries management would impact fishing statewide, the
State of Alaska again attempted to regain management. Between 1997 and
1999, a subsistence task force was convened, two special sessions of the
Legislature were held, and U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska twice
delayed a federal takeover of subsistence on federal waters through a
moratorium. But in the end, the Alaska Senate failed to pass onto voters a constitutional amendment to
that would bring state
law into compliance with ANILCA. On October 1, 1999, the rural subsistence priority was
extended to inland waters within 34 federal parks, forests, wildlife
refuges, preserves and recreation lands. Federal
subsistence fishery management had arrived.
[Map of Federal Waters in Alaska]
The federal management program
is administered by the Anchorage-based Office of Subsistence Management
and regulated by the six-member Federal Subsistence Board. The Board is
comprised of a voting chairman appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, and the regional directors of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian
Affairs and U.S.D.A. Forest Service.
While there are similarities between the federal and
state management systems, they differ on several key points.
[See State-Federal Comparison Page]
regulatory process begins with an annual call for proposals from the
public. Proposals are reviewed by 10 Regional Advisory Councils around the state
that consider and make recommendations on proposed changes. A recommendation
from a Regional Council carries considerable weight. It can be rejected by the
Federal Subsistence Board only if it is not supported by substantial
evidence, violates recognized principles of wildlife conservation, or
would be detrimental to the satisfaction of subsistence needs.
meet twice annually: Once in the fall to make recommendations on
subsistence fish proposals and again in the winter to weigh wildlife
proposals. Proposals are forwarded to the Federal Subsistence Board,
which convenes at least twice annually. Meetings of the Councils and of
the Board are open to the public. There are opportunities to give
written comments and oral testimony throughout the federal process.
[See Participate Page]