Subsistence hunters, port authorities look at gun safety

A rule against shooting guns and hunting marine mammals in Port of Nome is not necessarily a no-brainer, the Nome Port Commission has found. 

The right and desire to gather food from port waters came up during a Port Commission meeting Dec. 20, when Brandon Ahmasuk, subsistence resources program director with Kawerak, Inc., took the podium during public comment.

The Commission had penciled in the rule against hunting in the port as they revised the port tariff for the upcoming season. “By all means, we don’t want a stray bullet of hunters going off where it’s not intended to, but our hunters from a young age have been taught gun safety,” Ahmasuk told the panel.  “We want to urge bodies making rules to get in touch with groups in charge of the hunting. They are not all the same. For polar bear it is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for seals, the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“My understanding is that marine mammal hunting is allowed in both state and federal waters, and in this case, the port happens to fall in state waters. Yes, it is private property. I understand we don’t want people shooting from one side of the port to the other. We don’t want people shooting across the roads, we don’t want people shooting in industrial zones,” Ahmasuk continued.  “Again, these are families trying to put food on the table, for themselves. They may not be well off. They may not have the means to head out of town.

“Fortunately, the port provides a very important service, but the marine mammals also congregate there because of the resources that are coming into the port as it is freezing. You have trout, you have tom cod, you have saffron cod, what not. People are going to take advantage of [marine mammals coming into port to feed],” Ahmasuk said.

In the past, hunters had been interfered with, Ahmasuk added, citing an incident in 2015, stressing that the hunting was legal in state and federal waters.

In Alaska, subsistence use is number one priority in the law. He said that in conversations with the City Manager and the Chief of Police, they came up with an internal process for handling situations like this.

Ahmasuk urged the Commission and the Council to get in touch with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries to check their rules, saying that 
“Outreach education goes a long way, besides just stopping someone trying to put food on the table,” Ahmasuk told the Commission.

“An ordinance outlawing hunting would not pre-empt an act of Congress, the National Marine Mammal Protection Act is already in place,” Ahmasuk added.

People hunting in the port and shooting in line with his office had made him uneasy in the past, Commissioner Charles Lean offered.

“If you were to shoot from the cells out on the dock, you are shooting in the direction of town,” Lean said. “People are asking if they can shoot from the dock. I’m sympathetic with all hunters, I enjoy hunting myself, but I think that is a high risk situation.”

“Do you have any ideas on how it should work?” Commissioner Scot Henderson asked Ahmasuk. 

“One of the recommendations was for the hunter to call the police department, to call port authorities when they were doing this activity—that was the suggestion that was adopted,” Ahmasuk responded.
 Ahmasuk said they he and others, from agencies dealing with subsistence harvesting and resource conservation and management, were available and performing outreach education.

“Is there a way to make both things happen—safety and subsistence activities,” Henderson mused, acknowledging that notification would be one way. Most of the activity was happening in freeze-up months rather than in midsummer when people went to camp, rather than stay in town and seal hunt.

Again, outreach education could be provided to those who were not mindful of the risk of shooting across the road or across the port, Ahmasuk said.

It sounded to Commissioner Gay Sheffield that the internal protocol with City Hall and the police needs clarification is.
 There was a list, which included the hunter taking the responsibility to notify port authorities and others nearby, that subsistence activities were underway, Ahmasuk said.
 Joy Baker, port director attending by telephone, said she would reach out to Ahmasuk and city officials to come up with a recommendation on how to clarify hunting safety in the port area.

“We won’t just jump the gun and put something in the tariff that we haven’t fully vetted,” Baker said. “We’ll get more information and make sure what goes into the tariff has been fully evaluated.”

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