Last week Governor Sarah Palin sent a series of messages from her favorite communication tool: her Twitter account. We're often treated to little 140 character missives about the weather, or Trig's first hair cut, or the latest score from the Anchorage Aces hockey game.
But this series of three rapid-fire messages was regarding the subsistence fishing situation in Western Alaska. Let's face it. Not a subject that grabs the headlines like naughty monkey pumps, or the outrage du jour about somebody's idea of a joke. But this is one of those stories that will not go away, and is doing more to erode support for the governor in much of the state, than any of her other blunders.
The snark is unmistakable. She assumes the media won't report the "great news" simply because it's "great," and she knows and you know that the media has no interest in reporting the facts. They're just out to get her.
John Moller is Sarah Palin's rural advisor. He took over the role when her last rural advisor quit amid rumors that she couldn't get any face time with the governor. Moller was in the Western Alaskan village of Emmonak to discuss the topic on everyone's mind these days - salmon. Salmon are the primary subsistence food, and the commercial salmon fishery is the primary income source for residents of the villages of the Lower Yukon River.
Catastrophic problems exist, which start with the mismanagement of a fishery that allow tens of thousands of coveted king salmon to be tossed overboard as "bycatch" by large commercial pollock trawlers from Washington state. Not enough fish last summer meant not enough food last winter, and not enough income for heating and cooking fuel, supplemental food and supplies during the long, harsh winter. Luckily food drives, donations from around the country, support from churches and the blogging community were enough to keep the villages of the Lower Yukon from total disaster.
Palin, after almost eight weeks of inaction, and tons of media pressure, finally flew out to one of the villages. She arrived with two evangelical preachers, one of whom was Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham, boxes of private sector food with religious messages inside, and a plate of homemade cookies for effect.
Anchorage videographer Dennis Zaki, who contracts with CNN, visited the small village of Emmonak last winter, during the crisis, to document the plight of rural Alaskans that came as a direct result of last summer's disastrous fishing season. He wanted to go back this summer to follow up, and get a sense for how things might be looking for the winter ahead He made this trip on his own, funded entirely, as the last one was, by donations from private citizens. People were moved by the heartbreaking story of fellow Americans having to choose whether to keep their children and elders warm or fed, because they didn't have enough to do both.. They became informed of the situation and donated to send Zaki to Western Alaska through a host of Alaskan progressive blogs. Only because of these efforts, the story went from isolated Alaskan rural villages, to the national media. CNN picked up the story last winter.
Fishing season is upon us, and Alaskans were shocked to see what came across the Twitter wires just minutes after the previous tweet.
It was a miracle! 50% of residents had their subsistence needs met already? Others confident? This was quite unexpected, and good news indeed. Thiese reports came in from the governor while videographer Dennis Zaki was still in Emmonak, a village with a total population of only about 750 people. This report would be pretty easy to verify. The story Zaki tells, after hearing about the governor's tweets is this.
Last week Palin Tweeted that Emmonak had 50% of their subsistence quota [of king salmon]. I've heard all around town that that was false. So this morning I took a poll around town. Out of 66 people polled, 5 said they have met their quota. 51 said they have less then 50% of their quota. The limited time of the openings are making it hard to fish.
Half of Emmonak residents do NOT have their subsistance quota, and according to nearly all of the residents I've spoken to, they have no idea if they can get their quota. Tribal leaders are angry at this false statement by John Moller.
There is a high level of anxiety because the Y1 district could close to fishing at any time. According to Fish & Game, 75% of the kings this year have already made it upriver from here, so any chance of making money off them is slim to none again this year. Kings go for over $5 a pound, chums go for 50 cents. You can see why fishermen are not in a good mood. With only a 4 hour opening tonight for chums the fishermen that make their living from the sea, which is nearly every family in town, are going to only be able to catch just a small amount of fish. And that's assuming there will be fish there tonight. There could be no fish."
These people get pissed when I tell them what Moller said about 50% having their quota.
Frustrations are running high, and village residents are fearful of what the coming winter will bring. Instances of civil disobedience are being reported from the village of Marshall, where fishermen have been reported tonight out on the river, taking salmon illegally, to be assured that they will have enough to feed their families this winter. Questions arise about what this will do to the salmon returns next year, to villages farther upstream, and to our international treaty with Canada in which we guarantee a certain number of fish will make it across the border.
"We were ready to make a statement. We were ready to send a message to the fishery managers, to the governor, and to big business - meaning the trawl fishery. That you waste, you know, you're allowed to waste all this fish. We only take a small fraction of the runs," said Nick P. Andrew Jr., a Marshall fisherman and member of the Ohagamuit tribal government.
Andrew was one of six fisherman who took 100 king salmon from the river, despite the state's closure of the fishery.
But the bottom line is that the tens of thousands of fish being taken and discarded as waste by the factory trawlers are causing the bulk of the problem. As it stands now, there is no legal limit to the number of salmon that can be taken and thrown overboard dead, as bycatch. They can waste as much as they want, while Alaskans who have lived for thousands of years in the areas that these fish are headed, face hunger and poverty.
The harsh reality is that winter is only a couple months away in this area of the world, and every fish that swims past the villages, and every Seattle factory trawler that dumps its salmon bycatch overboard, brings Emmonak and villages like it one step closer to economic and subsistence collapse.
Right now, there is civil disobedience on the Yukon, there is disaster coming this winter and seasons beyond, and the leadership that is necessary to take Alaska's fisheries back for its people is nowhere in sight.
The Anchorage Daily News reports that the Commissioner of Public Safety and the Head of Wildlife Troopers were in meetings today. The head of the Department of Fish and Game was unreachable for comment. John Moller, the governor's Rural Advisor is now on personal leave. And what about the governor herself?
Really, I'd love to be able to get Palin on the phone to talk about this stuff. Haven't interviewed her about it since February.
Meanwhile, from the governor's Blackberry, all's well in the land of magical thinking.
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