Subsistence in Alaska
These frequently asked questions focus primarily on state subsistence hunting and fishing. Some subsistence hunting and fishing in Alaska is regulated by agencies of the federal government, including:
- Subsistence hunting and fishing on federal lands and waters is regulated by the Federal government under a state-federal co-management Memorandum of Understanding.
- The Federal Subsistence Board and Regional Advisory Councils are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Subsistence Management.
- Subsistence hunting for sea otters, polar bears, and walrus is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- Subsistence hunting for seals, sea lions, and whales is managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
- Subsistence hunting for migratory waterfowl is co-managed by the state and federal government through the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council.
- Subsistence fishing for halibut is managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the Restricted Access Management (RAM) Program.
- QQuestion. What is subsistence fishing and hunting?
Answer. Subsistence is defined in Alaska state laws as the “noncommercial customary and traditional uses” of fish and wildlife. These uses include:
- Food. In the 1990s (the last period for which a comprehensive estimate is available), the Division of Subsistence estimates that average rural subsistence harvest statewide was about 375 pounds of food per person per year. That is more than the U.S. average consumption of 255 pounds of domestic meat, fish, and poultry per year. Traditional foods are provided during funerals, potlatches, weddings, dances, and other ceremonial occasions.
- Sharing. Division research shows that fish and wildlife are widely shared with neighbors who cannot harvest for themselves because of age, disability, or other circumstances.
- Homes and other buildings. Spruce, birch, hemlock, willow, and cottonwood are used for house logs, fish racks, and many other items.
- Fuel. Wood is a major source of energy in rural homes, and is also used for smoking and preserving fish and meat.
- Clothing. Survey respondents report that wild furs and hides are still the best materials for ruffs (wind guards), mittens, parkas, kuspuks, linings, and mukluks (winter boots) in many regions.
- Tools and home goods. Hides are used as sleeping mats. Seal skins are used as pokes to store food. Wild grasses are made into baskets and mats.
- Transportation. Fish, seals, and other products are used to feed dog teams. Wood is used for sleds.
- Handicrafts (from non-edible portions of subsistence harvests). Division research shows that traditional products are also used in funerals, potlatches, weddings, dances, and other ceremonial occasions. Ivory, antlers, grass, wood, skins, and furs are crafted into beautiful items of art for sale and enjoyment.
Customary and traditional uses also include barter as well as “customary trade,” which is narrowly defined as the “limited noncommercial exchange, for minimal amounts of cash, as restricted by the appropriate board, of fish or game resources” (Alaska Statute 16.05.940). Specialized products like seal oil are bartered and exchanged in traditional trade networks between communities. Furs sold to outside markets provide an important source of income to many rural areas.
The primary requirement for participation in subsistence fishing or hunting is Alaska residency, which is defined as having lived in Alaska for 12 consecutive months.
- QQuestion. How are subsistence fishing and hunting different from sport fishing and hunting?
Answer. General hunting and sport fishing are not classified as customary and traditional uses by the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the Alaska Board of Game. While subsistence fisheries use highly efficient gear, especially nets and fish wheels, most sport fishing takes place with rod and reel. Sport fisheries are open to non-Alaska residents, while only Alaskans may participate in subsistence fisheries. Wild resources taken in sport fisheries may not be bartered.
In many areas of the state, regulations for Alaska resident general hunts and regulations for subsistence hunts are the same. If there are not enough animals to provide for general hunts, the Alaska Board of Game adopts regulations to provide for subsistence opportunities while still sustaining the population. For more information, see our Subsistence Hunting and Trapping Regulations information.
- QQuestion. Who decides what is a subsistence fishery or a subsistence hunt?
Answer. The Alaska Board of Fisheries and the Alaska Board of Game identify the fish stocks and game populations that are customarily and traditionally taken for subsistence purposes. To do this, the boards follow 8 criteria that have been adopted by regulation (5 AAC 99.010):
- Length of use
- Seasonality of harvest
- Methods and means of harvest
- Areas of harvest
- Methods of processing
- Transmittal of knowledge from generation to generation
- Reliance on and uses of a wide variety of resources
For more information about the criteria, select “Regulations,” from the global navigation bar above.
- QQuestion. Is subsistence for Alaska Natives only?
Answer. As long as you are an Alaska resident with 12 consecutive months of residency, both Alaska Natives and non-Natives, and both rural and urban residents, may participate in subsistence fisheries and subsistence hunts (except for marine mammals).
In Alaska state law, subsistence uses include the customary and traditional uses of fish and wildlife outside nonsubsistence-use areas, regardless of ethnicity.
Marine mammals are the one exception. Under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, only Alaska Natives who live on the coast of the North Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Ocean may harvest marine mammals for subsistence purposes.
- QQuestion. Isn’t subsistence eligibility based on need? Is subsistence a type of welfare for people with low incomes?
Answer. No. All Alaska residents are entitled to participate in state-administered subsistence hunts and fisheries in Alaska. In fact, Division of Subsistence research shows that households with the highest cash incomes in rural communities usually produce the most subsistence foods. Households with the lowest cash incomes usually produce less subsistence foods.
The households who produce the most subsistence foods in a community are usually households with large, mature labor forces that are fully equipped for hunting and fishing. Also, these households are usually composed of mature parents and one or more mature children. They have a greater cash income because there are usually several household members with cash-paying jobs.
More importantly, higher income households in rural Alaska typically produce extra subsistence foods–food that they then share with elderly relatives, the less fortunate, and young adults.
Because of the patterns of sharing, rural communities would suffer extreme hardship if subsistence hunting and fishing were limited to only households with low cash incomes. This would cut out the most productive households in the community.
- QQuestion. How does subsistence involve money?
Answer. In addition to basic necessities like fuel oil and electricity, clothing, and shelter, rural families use money to invest in the tools for hunting, fishing, and gathering–guns, ammunition, fishing nets, boats and boat motors, gasoline, rain gear, all-terrain vehicles, snowmachines, and so forth.
It is a common misconception that there is no money in traditional subsistence economies. Division research shows that trade and commerce have been part of traditional subsistence systems for thousands of years in Alaska. As a more recent example, the commercial fur trade with European markets began about 300 years ago, exchanging European currencies and goods for furs taken during subsistence trapping.
It is true that rural Alaskan economies operate differently from urban economies. Today’s rural economies are “mixed economies:” families and communities live by combining wild resource harvests with commercial wage employment. Cash-paying jobs tend to be few and unstable (seasonal or temporary) and cash incomes thus smaller and less secure in rural Alaska than in urban Alaska. Rural economic activity tends to occur in family groups, rather than in businesses, and rural economic ventures are of smaller scale. Rural economic goals are usually for the benefit of family groups rather than for the monetary profits of a business. These are major differences.
Alaska is a pluralistic society, with “mixed subsistence-cash” economies existing side-by-side with “industrial capital” economies in the population centers of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and along the road system.
- QQuestion. If I have a subsistence permit, can I hunt and fish wherever I want and take as much as I want?
Answer. Generally, the answer is no. Subsistence hunting and fishing, like all other harvest opportunities, are subject to reasonable regulations, including seasons and bag limits. Rules against wasteful taking also apply throughout Alaska.
Select “Fishing” or “Hunting” from the global navigation bar above for specific information about opportunities and regulations in subsistence areas.
In addition, the Joint Boards of Fisheries and Game have designated 5 nonsubsistence areas, where dependence on subsistence is not a principal characteristic of the economy, culture, and way of life (AS 16.05.258 (c)). These areas are the:
- Ketchikan Nonsubsistence Area
- Juneau Nonsubsistence Area
- Anchorage, Matanuska/Susitna, and Kenai Nonsubsistence Area
- Fairbanks Nonsubsistence Area
- Valdez Nonsubsistence Area
Learn more about Nonsubsistence Areas.
- QQuestion. Is big game (like moose or caribou) the main subsistence food?
Answer. As a general rule, no. Many small communities in Alaska depend many wildlife and fish resources, not just moose and caribou.
Division of Subsistence research shows that the main subsistence food is fish. Over 60% of the state's subsistence harvest by weight is fish, which includes salmon, halibut, herring, whitefishes, cod, and Arctic char/Dolly Varden. Land mammals represent about 20% of the state's subsistence harvest, marine mammals are about 14%, birds are about 2%, shellfish are about 2%, and wild plants are about 2%.
Of course, the types of foods people eat vary from place to place. For example, subsistence fishing is a smaller item in extreme coastal Arctic areas, where caribou, seals, whales, and walrus are the major subsistence resources.
- QQuestion. Does subsistence take most of the fish and game?
Answer. As a general rule, no. In the 1990s, commercial fisheries took about 97% of the statewide harvest of fish and wildlife; subsistence harvesters took 2%, and sport hunters and fishers took 1%.
These proportions vary by area. In the areas with roads, the sport harvest is usually larger than the subsistence harvest. In the areas without roads, the subsistence harvest is larger than the sport harvest. But statewide, commercial fishing is the leader in overall volume.
- QQuestion. Are subsistence foods safe to eat?
Answer. Overall, wild fish and wildlife are high quality, nutritious, and healthful foods. For advice about food safety, see the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Food Safety and Sanitation Program.
For information about wildlife diseases, select “Species” from the global navigation bar above.
- QQuestion. Is subsistence compatible with wildlife conservation?
Answer. Yes. Like all wildlife harvests in Alaska, subsistence harvests are managed under the principle of sustained yield. Survey respondents report that rural communities depend on the land for subsistence. They report that it is to their advantage to maintain undamaged land and ecosystems, so wildlife are abundant and so residents’ subsistence needs are met. Research has found that most subsistence communities have customary rules for treating the land and the ecosystem: “Do not waste,” “Take only what is needed,” “Treat the animals with respect,” “Do not damage the land without cause,” among others. Many respondents continue to affirm that if the rules are followed, then the land will provide.
- QQuestion. Why don’t subsistence hunters use bows and arrows?
Answer. No matter the century, harvesting fish and wildlife for food requires equipment that works, is safe, and is ecologically and economically sustainable over the long term. Across the world, anthropological and archeological research shows that subsistence activities have always required the best technologies for the best success. In fact, historical records show that rural Alaska has been using guns for hunting longer than the rest of the United States has been using automobiles for transportation–since the 1860s in most areas. Other methods of harvesting fish and wildlife, such as fish weirs, caribou corrals, and moose snares, were outlawed many years ago.
In any age, subsistence equipment is usually small scale, appropriate technology. It is efficient and modern. In the 21st century, subsistence equipment commonly includes fish nets, fish wheels, aluminum skiffs with small outboard motors, snowmachines, binoculars, radios and mobile phones. These tools may be used alongside technologies that may seem more historical, including dog teams, skin boats, smoke houses, and fish basket traps, depending upon the areas and conditions.
- QQuestion. Is subsistence disappearing?
Answer. Although it is constantly changing, division research shows that there is little evidence that subsistence is disappearing as a way of life in Alaska. In many communities, subsistence activities are among the most highly valued parts of the culture. Subsistence harvests still are essential contributions to rural economies.
In general, any change that depletes wild resources, reduces access to wild areas and resources, or increases competition between user groups can create problems for subsistence.
- QQuestion. How is subsistence fishing different from personal use fishing?
Answer. Personal use fisheries differ from subsistence fisheries in that they do not meet the criteria established for customary and traditional fisheries (5 AAC 99.010) or they occur in nonsubsistence areas. Also, fish or shellfish harvested using a personal use permit cannot be sold or bartered (AS 16.05.940).
For more information, see Subsistence and Personal Use Fishing Licenses and Permits.
- QQuestion. Do I need a license to go subsistence fishing? What about a permit?
Answer. No fishing license is required, but you may need a permit. For more information, see Subsistence and Personal Use Fishing Licenses and Permits.
- QQuestion. Where can I subsistence fish?
Answer. For areas open to subsistence fishing, visit the Subsistence Fishing by Area section. Select “Nonsubsistence Areas” for more information about areas closed to subsistence.
- QQuestion. How can I go subsistence fishing for halibut?
Answer. This is a federally-managed fishery. Regulations for subsistence halibut fishing in Alaska are adopted by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service based on recommendations from the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Under these regulations, you must be a resident of one a specifically-designated rural Alaska community or a member of a specifically-designated Alaska Native tribe. You must also obtain a Subsistence Halibut Registration Certificate (SHARC) from the Restricted Access Management (RAM) division of the National Marine Fisheries Service before fishing.
For more information, contact the National Marine Fisheries Service Restricted Access Management Program.