Thursday, a judge today dismissed a subsistence fishing citation against state Senator Albert Kookesh. It could be the end of a year-plus legal battle that challenged state management of Native subsistence harvests.
Sitka Superior Court Judge David George dismissed all but one charge against Kookesh and three co-defendants.
The four were cited in July of 2009 for catching more sockeye salmon than their subsistence permits allowed. They were contacted by state troopers while beach seining at a bay near Angoon, on Southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island.
Kookesh and the other defendants, all Angoon residents, challenged the state’s right to manage subsistence on the island, which is mostly federal land.
They lost that fight. But they also argued that the state failed to follow its own rules for setting harvest limits. And they won.
Kookesh says those limits were too low.
“We challenged what we thought was unfair bag limits on the subsistence-use fishery in Angoon. They said that you can only get 15 fish per family per year and a couple miles away you had commercial seine boats getting thousands of fish a day,” he says.
Kookesh is also board chairman of the Sealaska Corporation and co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives. Judge George presided in the case because Angoon’s magistrate is Kookesh’s daughter.
In addition to the senator, Rocky Estrada Sr., Stanley Johnson, and Scott Hunter were cited.
Attorney Anthony Strong represented the four fishermen.
“The 15-fish limit was not promulgated to all the strictures of the administrative procedures act. And that failure to follow the administrative procedures act means the regulation is not valid and the defendants cannot be prosecuted for that failure to follow that 15-fish limit,” he says.
The state could appeal the decision. District Attorney Doug Gardner says officials will wait for the judge’s formal ruling, which is due out in about a week.
“I think decisions to appeal decisions by courts in Alaska are careful and considered decisions that really require looking at a written decision, making a decision based on that. So I can’t comment on that right now,” he says.
Short of a successful appeal, Kookesh, Estrada and Johnson are in the clear. But Hunter still faces legal action.
“There is one remaining citation for fishing without a subsistence permit. And I can’t comment substantively on that but I can say procedurally that that case has been set for a status hearing on Tuesday of next week,” he says.
The trial has been delayed several times due to appeals and other issues. The most recent date was supposed to be Wednesday, September 8th.
Kookesh says he hopes the ruling leads to other challenges of subsistence fishing limits.
“I’m excited to have a judge agree with us that the bag limits were unjust and unfair. I’m excited to get this behind me because so many people in the state who felt that it was the right thing to do to challenge this. I’m also excited for the fact that it helps clarify the subsistence picture in Alaska,” he says.
The four people cited faced $500 fines for exceeding the possession limit of a subsistence permit. That’s considered a non-criminal offense.
Meanwhile, Kookesh and his family went fishing again this summer, but in a different location with larger bag limits.
“It’s important to us. It’s a major part of our life. I still live in my village. I still subsist and I still help other people subsist and I help other people go through that subsistence process as bad and as good as it was in a lot of cases. It’s just wonderful to at least feel a little bit vindicated,” he says.
Kookesh is a Democratic state senator representing more than 100 small communities in Southeast, Prince William Sound and the Interior.
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