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Koyukuk study: subsistence fish needs go beyond salmon

Salmon is a fundamental part of life for many rural Alaskans. The arrival of salmon in spring sets in motion a cycle of activity that lasts through summer and into fall. Salmon is the fish of choice, a source of sustenance and a foundation of many cultures. But there are regions throughout Alaska where salmon is scarce, if available at all. In these regions, other fish may play a more important role in the subsistence harvest. A newly published report, funded by the Fisheries Monitoring Program, examines the importance of non-salmon species to the people of the Koyukuk River region.

In the middle and upper reaches of the Koyukuk drainage, Arctic grayling, burbot, northern pike, sheefish and seasonal species of whitefish-not salmon-are the primary subsistence resources.

The project was a cooperative effort by David Andersen of Research North in Fairbanks, Caroline Brown and Robert Walker of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Subsistence Division, and Kimberly Elkin of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. It was designed to provide baseline and background information on the harvest and use of non-salmon species in Koyukuk River villages.

The study consisted of a survey of 242 households in Koyukuk, Huslia, Hughes, Allakaket, Alatna and Bettles/Evansville to gather 2002 harvest data. In addition, researchers tapped into the rich body of local knowledge through interviews with 29 residents of the region, most of them elders and all of them known for their expertise in fish and fishing in their region. These local experts possess a wealth of insights into the habits, seasonal movements, and availability of various fish species. Their knowledge is based on lifetimes of firsthand observation and on the knowledge passed down from previous generations.

The Fisheries Monitoring Program funds studies to collect and analyze harvest data and traditional knowledge because this information can provide for sound management of subsistence fisheries. Harvest surveys document the level of use and the importance of particular species to subsistence users. Traditional knowledge can also help resource managers understand what areas, seasons, fishing methods, and gear types are used in a particular region, so that customary and traditional practices can be sustained. Traditional knowledge can also provide valuable biological insights into fish species, especially those about which little is known, and can also provide the foundation for important research questions.

In several instances, researchers found that the people of the Koyukuk drainage had a very different, and possibly more detailed, understanding of fish species than does western science. As an example, the Native systems for classifying fish take into account the particular size of the fish, its condition, or the time of year it is available. Researchers identified five different terms for Alaskan blackfish. As lead author Dave Andersen notes in the report, “These five terms, and there may be others, point to a very rich Native taxonomy for a fish that Western science knows by a single name.”

The interviews with these local experts also provided information on topics such as when and where whitefish are ripe with eggs; what month burbot livers swell with oil; when black fish congregate at lake ice openings; and how and when whitefish move through local streams, sloughs, and lake systems.  These practical insights can help biologists learn more about aspects of spawning biology, fat metabolism and the seasonal movement of fish.

Andersen writes, “The viewpoint of the traditional Koyukon fisherman (as harvester) and the modern biologist (as scientist) may appear dramatically different at first glance, but the utilization of fish for food has everything to do with understanding fish behavior, anatomy, biology and life history.”

For a copy of “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Contemporary Subsistence Harvest of Non-Salmon Fish in the Koyukuk River Drainage, Alaska,” contact Polly Wheeler, Ph.D, at (907) 786-3888 or (800) 478-1456, or by e-mail at

--Maureen Clark

[Read more at Land and Water newsletter]

USFWS - Office of Subsistence Management Alaska | Posted 11.03.04 at 6:49 am

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