Emotions Run High As Fishermen Testify On Religion

The Kuskokwim fishermen trials continued today at the Bethel Court House. More fishermen were found guilty for illegal fishing last summer during King salmon closures. The fishermen’s defense attorney continued to ask the court to dismiss the cases and the judge continued to find the fishermen guilty. The fishermen took turns on the stand, some breaking down when they talked about what subsistence meant to them.

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James Albrite was one of them. The 33-year-old choked up when he spoke of growing up in a subsistence lifestyle.

“We used to go to fish camp every summer. . .right after school,” Albrite said through tears. “As long as I can remember, I can remember subsistence fishing. That’s our life, our way of eating. Our way of putting away food.”

Albrite’s father is a Moravian minister but he says their Yup’ik beliefs and Christianity go together. Like other fishermen, Albrite spoke about Ellam Yua, the Yup’ik word for the creator or spirit of the universe. Ellam Yua is in all animals which give themselves to hunters and fishermen. It is up to Ellam Yua if a hunter catches the fish or not and if the hunters don’t take what they are given, the creator is not pleased.

Albrite testified that his family usually puts up around 100 King salmon but last summer they only got half that. He told the court it is his God given right to fish for his family.

“It’s our tradition, it’s the way we live,” Albrite said. “It’s not every day we can wake up in the morning and say, ‘Honey, should we go to the supermarket and go buy a salmon, can we go buy a steak?’ It’s not easy for us. We have to wake up and look in our freezer to see what we can eat.”

Another fishermen to take the stand was David Phillip of Tuluksak. The 48-year-old admitted to fishing during a closure last summer, when he was questioned about it.

“If I got the means to do it, I will do it,” Phillip said.

“Even if you are breaking the law?” asked his lawyer, James Davis Jr.

“Well, if it comes down to feeding my family, yes,” Phillip answered.

When asked what subsistence meant to him, Phillip talked about his spiritual connection to the land and the animals. Like Albrite, Phillip’s family didn’t put up enough Kings last year and he said it made him feel bad.

“Spiritually, it brought me down,” Phillip said. “It’s like um. . .it did not fulfill me.”

Phillip and Albrite, like most other fishermen, were found to be sincere in their beliefs that they are spiritually connected to the fish.

Judge Bruce Ward repeated, “the court’s going to find, based on his testimony that he sincerely believes in this religion, however, the court finds that there is a compelling state interest in monitoring the amount of harvest allowed.”

There were a lot “howevers” in the sentencing process. Most fishermen were sentenced to $500 dollars with half of it suspended. Their nets were returned but the fish seized was forfeited to the state. They were also put on probation for one year.

The defense plans to appeal the fishermen cases to the Alaska Supreme Court.