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 family needs.

     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.

     Subsistence wasn’t 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 there.

    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]

     The federal 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.

       Regional councils 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]

(last updated 01/30/07)

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