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Tribal fish rights in Aleutians?

September 21st, 2012 | Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

David Osterback says the Aleutian region could use a good regional cookbook, combining the recipes from local cookbooks already published in area villages, especially seafood dishes. Osterback spoke at a fisheries workshop at the Regional Wellness and Self-Governance Conference in Unalaska last week, sponsored by the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association.

Osterback, a Sand Point fisherman and fisheries activist, also laid out a political agenda, what might be called an "Activist's Cookbook," taking aim at the large-scale commercial fishing industry that he said deprives the declining villages of their rightful share of "fish gold" taken off their shores.

A federal lawsuit to establish tribal fishing rights in Area M is now being prepared by a Seattle attorney who won a similar case in Pacific Northwest that gave Native groups 50 percent of fish harvests, Osterback said. The percentage that local tribal fishermen will demand has not yet been determined, he said.

"Who's catching the fish? Everybody in the world except the people who live here," said Osterback.

Area M is a huge state-designated fishing area extending from Cape Kupreanof on the lower Alaska Peninsula including Sand Point and King Cove, and taking in all of the Aleutian Islands and surrounding waters all the way to Attu.

And Osterback called for a letter-writing campaign to seafood processing companies for financial support of medical facilities, urged on by advertisements on television and local public radio stations.

"I think we should make some of the big processing plants pay," Osterback said. "They're making millions and billions of dollars."

Village clinics packed with processing workers mean longer waiting time for local residents, he said.

Another medical facility suggestion was made earlier in the conference, for a hospital in Unalaska, which has been without an overnight facility since World War II, when Japanese aircraft bombed the old Native hospital in Unalaska. Denise Rankin, of the Ounalashka Corporation, Unalaska's Native village corporation, told Gov. Sean Parnell of the need for a hospital when the state's highest official conducted a listening session at the conference at the Grand Aleutian Hotel.

Another means of fisheries health financing is a "capitalization fee" attached to medical bills to pay for building construction costs, when non-Natives visit clinics funded with federal Indian money, said Joe Beckford, superintendent of the Aleutian Region School District, serving Atka with about 12 students, and Adak with 22. The minimum for state funding is 10.

The school district no longer serves Nikolski, which closed for too few students. Conference participants said the closure of a school can mean the death of a village. Beckford said area school enrollments suffer from too few "women of child bearing age," while the male population is heavily "Norwegian bachelor farmer," quoting from the radio comedy show Prairie Home Companion.

Sand Point and neighboring King Cove are home to a fleet of 58-foot fishing boats that fish throughout Area M, and this summer harvested pink salmon in Unalaska Bay. No local boats took part in the season's single fishing period, because of a lack of limited entry salmon permits, and gear.

Osterback said he agrees with the Unalaska Native Fisherman's Association's view that locals should be catching the fish in their own backyard. He said local fishermen should be "hounding" village and regional Native corporations and community development quota groups for money for permits. Too many salmon permits are idle anyways, just "sitting in a drawer," he said, and most permits aren't owned by local or Alaska residents. The permit price of about $50,000, he said, is about the lowest ever.

Another financing avenue is low-interest loans from the state investments division, said former Unalaska fisherman John Moller, now the governor's rural affairs adviser. Moller said salmon prices are rising, perhaps in part to state marketing efforts, citing 50 cents a pound for pinks and up to 90 cents for chums.

One controversial salmon enhancement suggestion made by Osterback involves raising pollock harvest quotas, essentially as a form of predator control. Since pollock eat baby salmon, boosting the quota would be like state biologists shooting wolves from small aircraft to maintain moose populations, except that his suggestion would involve large fishing boats, not airborne rifles.

Osterback, age 67, said he's been on local fishing boats since he was two weeks old in False Pass. "I've been fishing since I was this long," he said, holding his hands apart as if to describe the length of a salmon.

Jim Paulin can be reached at


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