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FAIRBANKS - A Superior Court judge directed the Alaska Board of Fisheries to revisit a 2003 decision in which it reclassified dip netting salmon in the Copper River at Chitina as personal-use fishing, not subsistence fishing.
Judge Mike MacDonald told the board in a Dec. 31 decision to better define the term "subsistence way of life" before deciding whether dip netting at Chitina qualifies.
Fishing for subsistence has a higher priority under state law than that of commercial, sport or personal-use fishing. Dip-netters contend state limits on their Copper River salmon catches are too restrictive.
The Chitina Dipnetters Association and Alaska Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fund filed suit against the state a year ago to reclassify Chitina dip netting as a subsistence use.
Before a fish stock can qualify for a subsistence fishery, state law requires the board to determine whether the use of the fish has been "customary and traditional." The board uses eight criteria to help guide the decision. The eighth criteria requires that the board consider whether the fishing "provides substantial economic, cultural, social and nutritional elements of the subsistence way of life."
MacDonald said board members used "ill-defined, subjective definitions" in deciding dip net fishing is done for personal use.
Dip netting's designation volleyed between subsistence and personal use starting in 1985. It was considered subsistence from 1999 until the board's decision in 2003.
The board will likely consider the Chitina issue at a March meeting in Anchorage, said Lance Nelson, senior state assistant district attorney with the Department of Law and an adviser to the board.
"The board will re-evaluate it in light of the court direction, make a decision one way or another and put it in regulation well before the season starts," Nelson said. The season traditionally opens in the first week of June and annually attracts more than 10,000 dip-netters to the Copper River.
Mark Hem, vice president of the Chitina Dipnetters Association, called McDonald's decision a "major victory" because it reopens the issue.
"It also technically means since 1999 we've been subsistence users," said Hem, who operates a charter business at Chitina ferrying dip-netters to fishing spots. "Everything that transpired between now and then shouldn't have happened, even though it did."