Trials of Native fishermen begin in Bethel, Alaska

Bethel, Alaska. Photo: Al Grillo, APOutlaws or wrongfully accused? A group of Yupik men on trial for illegal salmon fishing during an emergency river closure has deepened Alaska’s cultural divide.

Ever since dozens of Alaska Native salmon fishermen this summer had their nets and catches seized along the Kuskokwim River by Alaska State Troopers, tensions have been building toward the moment when the men would get the chance to clear their name.

Many chose to settle their cases out of court with lesser charges and smaller fines. But those who chose to fight back will this week get the chance to have their say.

A handful of trials began at Monday at a state courthouse in Bethel, a regional and economic hub for the predominantly Native villages of Western Alaska.

“Before you criminalize people for what they are born and raised to do, give them good notice,” defense attorney James Davis told Alaska State Court Judge Bruce Ward, who is presiding over the trial, late Monday afternoon, during the closing arguments in the first case to be heard.

Davis argued there is great disparity in the way urban sport hunters and village-based subsistence fishermen are treated. The state goes out of its way to educate big game hunters about rules and regulations, and seems far less proactive when reaching out to a minority population of isolated villagers more comfortable conversing in Yupik, their native tongue, rather than in English. He raised questions about whether fair and adequate notice had been given about the closures. And he argued a trooper didn’t follow the rules when determining one particular fisherman, Harry David, had used an oversized net.

It’s an emotional debate that highlights strains in the relationship between some traditional villagers and the State of Alaska especially when it comes to gathering traditional foods in traditional ways. A growing sense that what happened on the Kuskokwim this summer was wrong fueled a recent subsistence rally during the recent Alaska Federation of Natives conference — Alaska’s largest Alaska Native member organization — and galvanized AFN and others, the National Congress of American Indians among them, to call for an end to perceived injustices.

On the heels of the annual October AFN convention, held this year in Anchorage, Alaska’s congressional delegation has also called for official hearings on the issue.

River with too few salmon runs through debate

The Chinook, prized and wild Alaskan king salmon, swim through all of the human drama. Coveted for its nutrition, its good quality even after for drying and, when available for commercial harvest, the high prices kings fetch per pound. But commercial harvests in Western Alaska have become rare occurrences with weakening runs a seeming new norm. The king return was so bad this year that even subsistence gathering — fishing for personal family use and consumption — was[severely cut back in the face of repeated river closures to traditional fishermen, and ultimately, disaster declarations across the state and in the predominantly Native Yukon-Kuskokwim River delta region of Western Alaska.

Preserving runs for future years meant making sure the few fish that were in the river made it to spawning grounds. Which meant telling families along the river system that kings were off limits. Despite this, there were opportunities to harvest other species of salmon, chum and sockeye.

Some fishermen who defied the closures have claimed they didn’t know they were breaking the law.

Others have said they knew they were in violation, but with the blessing of their elders, felt that feeding their families was more important. Many of the citations were for fishing with the wrong nets, which are restricted by fisheries managers to control the size and species of fish targeted. Narrower nets are thought to allow Chinooks to swim by while smaller species get caught.

Enforcement seen as heavy handed by river villagers

Much anger over the state’s summer enforcement mission has centered on villagers having had enough of outsiders telling them what to do and skepticism over the way salmon runs are managed.

In the courtroom in Bethel this week, it centered on whether the citations were lawful and fair. Davis was adamant that law enforcers were in the wrong; the Alaska district attorney for the Bethel region kept arguments for conviction more cut and dry.

Despite all of the “hoopla and media attention” the cases have received, there’s no escaping that “it is the responsibility of fishermen and hunters to know the law before they go out and to follow the law,” said prosecutor Chris Carpeneti.

In the non-jury trials that the fishermen face, a judge will decide their innocence or guilt and the minor violations most of the men are accused of, leaving no room for consideration of a defendant’s intentions. The standard for this type of decision is something known as “strict liability,” likened by Carpeneti to the process for a traffic ticket or other hunting violations. A defendant either did – or did not – commit a crime.

David’s attorney argued that with so many emergency orders coming out over the course of the summer about when fishing was legal and what net size was legal, it was nearly impossible for fishermen to keep up, let alone Yupik-speaking villagers far from urban centers and chains of communication. Where were the press releases in Yupik? The outreach to make sure people either knew about the closures or knew where to find out about the closures?

Carpeneti defended the state’s efforts to get the word out, showing that notices had been broadcast on a local radio station in both Yupik and English, and that any time an emergency order went out, faxes and emails were also sent to villages. David’s village of Tuntutuliak was visited personally by a trooper and representative of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who spoke with the village council and hand out fliers.

David was cited June 22 while out fishing with his nephews. At that time, only 6-inch nets were allowed. A trooper cited the 48-year-old lifelong Tuntutuliak fisherman for using a net with 8-and-a-half inch mesh.

“My nieces and nephews were looking forward to eating fresh fish. I didn’t know I was breaking the law,” David told the court, testifying on his own behalf.

He said he only listened to the radio at night when going to bed, and that he’d checked the post office for fishing announcements but didn’t see any. He made the decision to go fishing after his sister told him the closure had been lifted.

That was true for a prior emergency Chinook closure on the Kuskokwim. But a superseding order, issued June 20, announced new restrictions that took effect June 22, the day David went out.

Although his lawyer claimed David only spoke broken English, and a Yupik interpreter translated in the courtroom for most of the day, he demonstrated English well enough that the interpreter was dismissed.

The final outcome in David’s case will likely shape what happens with the other fishermen who are also fighting their charges. Judge Ward is expected to hand down his rulings Tuesday morning.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)

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