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Why There is a Division of Subsistence at ADF&G
Why does the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have a “Division of Subsistence?” The short answer is that, 30 years ago, the Alaska Legislature passed the state’s first subsistence statute, establishing subsistence as the priority use of Alaska’s fish and wildlife.
At the time, the legislature recognized the need for basic information about subsistence uses --who, what, when, where, how, and how much -- to assist the Board of Fisheries and the Board of Game to develop regulations providing subsistence harvest opportunities consistent with sustained yield management. To address this information need, the 1978 law created a research unit within ADF&G called the “section of subsistence hunting and fishing,” that became the Division of Subsistence in 1981. The law directs the division to “compile existing data and conduct studies to gather information, including data from subsistence users, on all aspects of the role of subsistence hunting and fishing in the lives of the residents of the state.” The division’s other statutory responsibilities include assisting the boards in identifying subsistence uses and crafting regulations, and reporting its study findings to agencies, other organizations, and the public.
For a more thorough response to this question, however, I’ll discuss why the legislature passed a subsistence law in the first place and also take a look at some of the division’s key study findings. By establishing a subsistence priority, the legislature acknowledged the unique importance of wild resource harvests for food, raw materials, and other traditional uses in many Alaska communities. Alaska’s regulatory system had, since before statehood, managed subsistence separately from recreational and commercial harvesting. But the 1978 law, for the first time, defined subsistence as “customary and traditional uses” of fish and wildlife, thereby highlighting the continuing role of subsistence fishing and hunting in sustaining long-established ways of life in the state.
Investigating the many dimensions of subsistence uses of fish and wildlife required ADF&G’s new research division to apply the methods of the social sciences, and especially cultural anthropology. The goal of this “holistic” approach is to understand subsistence activities within a broad socioeconomic and sociocultural context. (The counterpart in the biological sciences is the “ecological approach.”) From the start, division researchers employed a range of established scientific methods: systematic household surveys, key respondent interviewing, mapping, and participant observation. Many studies focused on subsistence uses within particular communities; others investigated specific topics. Most study findings appear in the division’s Technical Paper Series (now with over 300 titles, and available on-line at the division’s web page). These studies are a primary source of information as the boards develop their “customary and traditional use findings” for fish stocks and game populations, and as they evaluate regulations to provide a reasonable opportunity for subsistence uses, as required by law.
The subsistence law also directs the division to quantity subsistence harvests. In response, we developed the “Community Subsistence Information System” (CSIS) database (also available on-line) as the central location of the results of our systematic household surveys, with data now for 262 communities. In addition to harvest estimates, the CSIS includes demographic data and information about the jobs and sources of cash. The division also developed a statewide subsistence salmon permit database. These databases are key sources when the boards make their “amounts necessary for subsistence” findings, also a requirement of the subsistence law.
Looking back on this research, several key points stand out. An early finding was that contemporary subsistence uses take place within a “mixed economy” in rural Alaska, with a subsistence hunting and fishing component and a cash component. These components are intertwined: cash is necessary to purchase the equipment, supplies, and fuel needed to harvest subsistence resources. The research also found that subsistence activities continue to provide large quantities of food for Alaskans – on average about a pound of food per day per person in rural areas. Nevertheless, subsistence uses vary from place to place. As Robert Wolfe observed in a review of 25 years of Division of Subsistence research, “Alaska is distinguished by its diversity of small, rural communities that are economically and culturally dependent on fish and game. Multiple ways of living have developed within these communities of users that include the traditional harvest and use of wild resources, adapted to local ecological and economic circumstances” (Technical Paper 284, “Local Traditions and Subsistence: A Synopsis from Twenty-Five Years of Research by the State of Alaska’ by Robert J. Wolfe, 2004).
As amended in 1986 and 1992, the state subsistence law recognizes that the importance of subsistence fishing and fishing is not uniform throughout the state. The law directs the boards, acting jointly, to distinguish between “nonsubsistence areas” and other areas based upon finding whether “dependence upon subsistence” is “a principal characteristic of the economy, culture, or way of life.” The division’s research program is designed to inform the Joint Board’s identification of nonsubsistence areas.
Division studies have documented specialization in subsistence harvests. The pattern is so consistent that we refer to it as the “30-70 rule”: that 30% of a community’s households produce 70% of the community’s harvest (as measured in usable pounds). Further, we found that highly productive harvesters tend to be households with several older adult members who have access to cash; such families are often successful in both the subsistence and cash sectors of the local, mixed economy. These households share their harvests widely. In a recent example, Jim Magdanz and his colleagues reviewed 10 years of subsistence salmon harvest data for 10 northwest Alaska communities. They found that despite varying harvest levels and run sizes, each year about 23% of the fishing households harvested about 70% of the salmon. High harvesting households contained older members, were headed by couples, and were involved in other subsistence harvests. However, the study team also found significant variation from year to year in the identity of top-harvesting households. These findings have applications in the design of harvest monitoring projects. (Technical Paper 294, “Patterns and Trends in Subsistence Salmon Harvests, Norton Sound and Port Clarence, 1994 – 2003” by James Magdanz, Eric Trigg, Austin Ahmasuk, Peter Nanouk, David Koster, and Kurt Kamletz, 2005).
Many studies show that subsistence hunting, fishing, and processing in Alaska are informed by body of knowledge generally referred to as “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK). Investigating such knowledge may provide useful information for resource managers. For example, Caroline Brown of the Subsistence Division, Sport Fish Division’s John Burr, and Kim Elkin of the Tanana Chiefs Conference learned about the abundance, distribution, and movements of nonsalmon fish, especially northern pike, in the Innoko River and middle Yukon River through TEK interviews, harvest surveys, mapping, biological sampling of catches, and fish tag returns. (Technical Paper No. 289, “Contemporary Subsistence Uses and Population Distribution of Non-Salmon Fish in Grayling, Anvik, Shageluk, and Holy Cross” by Caroline Brown, John Burr, Kim Elkin, and Robert Walker, 2005). Such studies not only produce important scientific data: they also build relationships with subsistence harvesters that are a bridge to further understanding, mutual respect, and collaborative studies.
Studies of TEK also inform us about the values of respectful treatment of fish and wildlife and nonwasteful taking that lie at the heart of traditional subsistence activities. Copper Center elder Martha Jackson put it succinctly: “It is because people work on the salmon well that the salmon still now exist.” (See Technical Paper 270, “Traditional Knowledge and Fishing Practices of the Ahtna of the Copper River Alaska, by William Simeone and James Kari, 2002).
To conclude, I’ll return to the original question – Why is there a Division of Subsistence within ADF&G? – and offer my three top reasons:
• One, because subsistence hunting and fishing are vital to the economy and culture of hundreds of Alaska communities and tens of thousands of Alaska residents;
• Two, because understanding customary and traditional uses of fish and wildlife through scientific research and by learning from subsistence hunters and fishers strengthens Alaska’s resource management system; and
• Three, because providing opportunities for customary and traditional uses of fish and wildlife supports the diverse ways of living in Alaska, thereby enriching the lives of everyone who lives here in the Great Land.
James Fall is a staewide program manager with the division of subsistence. He's based in Anchorage.
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