Appellate court upholds federal takeover of Alaska fishing

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed its landmark 1995 Katie John ruling in a case that led to federal takeover of subsistence fishing in most Alaska waters.

Monday's 8-3 decision upholds the right of rural Alaskans to subsistence hunting and fishing on most waters in Alaska.

Federal subsistence laws grant rural residents a priority for hunting and fishing on federal lands, but the state Constitution says all Alaskans should have equal access to the state's fish and game.

The Katie John ruling greatly expanded the geographic scope of the federal government's authority in Alaska. The state Legislature has refused to go along with proposed amendments of the state's constitution to match it with federal law.

''The court determined that the decision rendered by the prior panel and adopted by the (U.S.) District Court should not be changed, leaving in place the federal management on federally reserved waters,'' said John Tetpon, spokesman for the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Katie John, an Athabascan elder and grandmother, sued the Interior Department in 1991, asking the department to force the state to let her set subsistence salmon nets at her Copper River fish camp.

''Katie John had sued to continue to fish as she had always done and as her ancestors had always done,'' Tetpon said. ''This was a customary, traditional subsistence harvest of fish. What the opinion does is uphold her way of life.

''It's been a long and difficult court battle for Katie John, who's now in her early 80s,'' Tetpon said. ''It's just wonderful for this Athabascan grandmother to be able to see that justice has been upheld in this landmark case.''

In 1990, the Alaska Board of Fisheries denied the request of Katie John and Doris Charles, another elder, to set up a subsistence fish camp.

John, Charles and others sued, saying the federal government wasn't fulfilling its obligation to manage subsistence on federal property.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland agreed, and the Ninth Circuit later ruled the federal government had jurisdiction in navigable waters and in ''federal reserve waters.'' The court defined the term as waters necessary for the purposes of a federal special use area designated by Congress, such as a national park or refuge.

''The state argued based on states' rights that they had the right to manage fish in federal waters because of their sovereignty,'' Tetpon said.

He said the state was, in essence, overstepping its bounds in doing that.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game oversees seasons, openings and limits to balance opportunities for commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen. The mandate for federal managers is to put subsistence foremost.

After a federal judge in Anchorage issued a final judgment in the case in January 2000, the state appealed.

Gov. Tony Knowles said the administration filed the appeal because the state wanted to manage its navigable waters, not because it was against Natives' subsistence rights.

Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho said Monday he had received a copy of the opinion, but had not yet reviewed it with the governor.

He said the state has 90 days to file a petition for appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, so there is no urgency to review the decision now.

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