Yup'ik fishermen appeal fishing convictions

ANCHORAGE — Nearly half of the subsistence fishermen who were found guilty of illegal fishing on the Kuskokwim River are appealing their convictions.

Their attorney, James J. Davis Jr., filed a notice a notice of appeal, triggering a process that could last months before arguments are made.

Assistant Attorney General Laura Fox said 11 fishermen are appealing the convictions handed up in Bethel in May. The appeals were filed earlier this month.

The Yup’ik fishermen were cited last year during a poor king salmon run.

During their trials before a judge, about two dozen fishermen argued they have a spiritual right to fish for king salmon when restrictions are in place. The fishermen’s defense was based on a free exercise clause of the Alaska Constitution.

Bruce Ward, an acting District Court judge, found the state’s need to restrict kings supersedes the fishermen’s religious rights.

In siding with the state, Ward said he looked at the case closely, reviewing a case decided by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1979. The case shows that the free exercise clause may work when religion is involved, the conduct is religiously based and the person is sincere. Ward said the fishermen met the first two requirements and addressed the sincerity question in individual trials.

Ward, however, decided that there is a compelling need to restrict the Kuskokwim king run based on recent data.

Davis was camping in recent days and not reachable by phone. But he said earlier in an email the goal of the appeal is to “reverse the trial court and hold that there were other things the state could have done to protect subsistence.”

Davis has said the state could press for action against the commercial Pollock trawlers that catch thousands of kings each year as bycatch off Alaska’s coast. He also 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 limited to people with a spiritual connection to it.

In the convictions, Ward imposed $250 fines for all but one fisherman, who was fined $500. They fishermen also were placed on probation for one year.

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.

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