The sockeye fishery Sen. Albert Kookesh and three fellow subsistence fishermen are accused of overfishing in July was on the verge of collapse less than a decade ago due to overfishing, according to court documents filed Tuesday.
Kookesh, D-Angoon, Stanley D. Johnson, Rocky L. Estrada Sr., and Scott T. Hunter were cited for illegally harvesting 73 sockeye over their limit on July 12 in Kanalku Bay near Angoon. District Attorney Doug Gardner filed paperwork Tuesday that joins the court cases together. All four men have pleaded not guilty and a trial has been set for Oct. 5. The maximum fine for the citation is $500.
The men were cited after harvesting 148 sockeye with a beach seine net, 73 more salmon than allowed on the valid permits in their possession at the time. Each person's subsistence permit allows for 15 sockeye to be harvested from the Kanalku Lake area. One man in possession of a valid permit wasn't cited.
According to the court documents, Kookesh first told the trooper that the group had about 60 to 70 sockeye before the fish were counted. After counting, Kookesh said that additional permits from people not present also were valid toward the limit.
It is "common knowledge in Angoon that everyone could fish everyone's permit," Kookesh is quoted saying in the affidavit.
In contrast, Kookesh told The Associated Press in August that he would fight the case to help align the state constitution with federal law governing subsistence on federal land.
Kookesh said his lawyers advised him not to talk to the media about the case. However, he did say that many Alaska Native organizations have gotten on board in support of his case to resolve the jurisdictional issue.
Federal law passed in 1980 requires that rural residents receive subsistence hunting and fishing priority to protect rights for Alaska Natives who surrendered aboriginal land claims. The state constitution says fish, wildlife and water are to be reserved for the "common use" of all Alaskans. Courts have interpreted that to outlaw a rural preference.
Meanwhile, the annual return of sockeye to Kanalku Lake looks good this year but scientists worried the fishery was on the verge of collapse in 2001, said biologist Dave Harris of the state Department of Fish and Game.
"We kind of worked out an agreement with the community (of Angoon), sort of a voluntary closure where we didn't close it but the community agreed not to fish it for a number of years," he said.
The escapement of sockeye, or number of fish that return to spawn, at Kanalku Lake in 2001 was 229 salmon, according to the ADF&G. In 2002 it was 1,630, before slipping back to 276 in 2003.
Some ignored the voluntary closure, and it became a contentious issue in Angoon, so ADF&G began actively managing the area again in 2006, according to court records. The number of fish per subsistence permit from Kanalku Lake was set at 15 sockeye.
"In these areas that have a limited escapement you want to have a limited harvest out of them and that's why we put a 15-fish-per- permit limit," Harris said. "That was kind of our first step, to cut back the permit level on that lake and expanded the opportunity in some of the other areas so it wouldn't prove a hardship for people."
He said fishery management in recent years has led to a stronger-than-normal sockeye run this year - about 2,000 salmon.
"This year definitely has a great level of escapement, certainly the highest we've seen in awhile," Harris said.
It is difficult to say how harmful, if at all, the alleged July 12 overharvest would be to the Kanalku Lake run, he said.
"By exceeding their permit limits it was more of going against the rule of the law, basically, going against the regulations that all the other people are abiding by," Harris said. "The regular folks that are abiding by the permit stipulations are contributing to improving the runs."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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