ANCHORAGE — Sam Jackson believes a favorable trial verdict for him and other Alaska Natives cited for illegally fishing king salmon could help his people reclaim the subsistence rights they’ve enjoyed for thousands of years.
The 50-year-old Yup’ik Eskimo from Akiak is among nearly two dozen Yukon-Kuskokwim fishermen set to begin trials in Bethel next week. They were cited last summer during a weak king salmon run.
The non-jury proceedings will begin Monday with testimony from specialists on Yup’ik culture who are acting as pro bono experts for defendants.
The fishermen are employing a religious protection defense, saying fishing bans on their subsistence lifestyle violate their spiritual freedoms.
“We’re part of that ecological circle of life for the salmon,” Jackson said.
State prosecutors questioned the defense, saying in court documents the fishermen’s position is that they are protected from “criminal liability” even if the state can prove its case against them. Prosecutors wanted a pretrial ruling on whether the fishermen could use that defense. Before trial, each fisherman should provide evidence on their religious reasons for violating the restrictions, prosecutors said in a motion for the pretrial ruling.
“The defendants’ free exercise has no bearing on their guilt or innocence of the charges, but rather concerns whether the charges are constitutionally precluded,” states the motion.
The fishermen’s attorney, James J. Davis Jr., said at a pretrial conference Friday that the state was incorrectly seeking to conduct a trial within a trial.
Magistrate Bruce Ward said he can make specific findings after he hears from expert witnesses. But he said each defendant’s case will move forward on its merits. Ward said he anticipates a motion to dismiss would then be filed by Davis, followed by arguments for both sides, before he makes a ruling in the case.
“It is cumbersome, but if each defendant has testimony to give germane to their individual case, then the court’s going to have to consider that,” Ward said.
Three other fishermen tried separately in October in Bethel were found guilty of violating fishing restrictions for kings. The men were each fined $250.
State and federal officials have said ensuring sustainability for future runs is the greater priority, and last year’s king numbers were severely low. The dismal runs led to federal disaster declarations for the Yukon-Kuskokwim area and Cook Inlet.
Davis maintains the state can protect king runs and still allow Yup’ik fishermen a subsistence priority over non-Yup’ik residents, even for a short fishery. He said the state also could press for action against the commercial Pollock trawlers that catch thousands of kings each year as bycatch off Alaska’s coast.
Altogether, 60 fishermen from western Alaska originally faced misdemeanor charges of using restricted gear or fishing in closed sections of the Kuskokwim River during the king run last summer.
Most charges were later reduced to minor violations. Many of the fishermen pleaded guilty to the reduced counts and were ordered to pay $250 fines.
Win or lose, more restrictions or not, Jackson plans to fish on the Kuskokwim River this summer when the kings are running. Other subsistence fishermen in the region plan to do the same thing, he said.
“We’ve got to practice our way of life, what we’ve been doing, what our ancestors taught us,” he said.
It’s a little too early to assume the opportunity for harvesting kings won’t occur, said John Linderman, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said a forecast for this summer’s run has not been completed, but restrictions — if there are any — are not expected to be as strict on the Kuskokwim.
“I think it’s unfortunate that there’s a perspective that they’re going to fish no matter what because I know that the users of the Kuskokwim care about their resource and the long-term sustainability of their resource,” he said.