ANCHORAGE — A trial began Monday in Bethel for the first of two dozen western Alaska Natives accused of subsistence fishing for king salmon in violation of strict restrictions set by the state because of poor runs.
Bethel District Attorney June Stein said each trial will be heard separately by a judge. Court dates are staggered out through January, according to Jim Davis Jr., an Anchorage attorney who is volunteering his services to the fishermen.
Adolph Lupie, of Tuntutuliak, is among the fishermen awaiting trials on non-criminal gear violations. The 58-year-old Yup’ik Eskimo was in court when the trial of another fisherman started Monday. A Yup’ik interpreter participated in the proceeding to a full gallery.
“There were lots of supporters there,” Lupie said.
Bethel-based KYUK reported that the first fisherman to stand trial was Harry David, of Tuntutuliak, who is charged with using the wrong size net in June. His attorney told the court that no one notified David about restrictions and the fisherman didn’t know what the rules were.
Prosecutors did not present an opening statement. Davis did, saying the state did not properly distribute the fishing rules. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued 22 emergency orders, none of them was translated into Yup’ik, and they were broadcast only through KYUK, Davis said.
In all, 60 fishermen originally faced misdemeanor charges of using restricted gear and/or fishing in closed sections of the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska during the summer king run.
Most charges were later reduced to minor violations, and a little more than half pleaded guilty to the reduced counts and were ordered to pay $250 fines.
State and federal officials have said ensuring sustainability for future runs is always the overriding priority, and this year’s king numbers were severely low. The poor runs led to federal disaster declarations for the Yukon-Kuskokwim area as well as Cook Inlet.
Subsistence fishermen and their supporters say it’s their God-given right to fish in waters where their ancestors did for thousands of years. They also want more of a say in managing their fishing grounds.
Later runs of other chum and red salmon were plentiful in the region. But fishermen facing trials say they have to catch kings to dry in June before rains and flies arrive.
The largest salmon species, kings also are highly valued for their high fat content, which rural Alaska Natives say helps get them through extreme winters.