Overfishing charges against former State Senator Albert Kookesh and two other men have been reinstated by the Alaska Court of Appeals.
In 2009, Kookesh and three others – Rocky Estrada, Sr., Stanley Johnson, and Scott Hunter – were fishing for sockeye salmon at Kanalku Bay near his hometown of Angoon. A state wildlife trooper observed them catching more salmon than allowed under their subsistence permits, and issued citations.
Kookesh, Estrada, and Johnson challenged, saying the Alaska Department of Fish and Game cannot establish catch limits. They argued the only way to enact limits is through the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
A District Court judge agreed, and dismissed the charges against the men.
The Court of Appeals in ruling today (Friday) said the board of fish can delegate authority to the department. The case was returned to the District Court.
Kookesh says he and the other defendants would like to continue fighting, but their attorney – Tony Strong of Juneau – has been disbarred for an unrelated matter.
“We have to find another one. We have to find people like AFN or Tlingit and Haida or somebody else to step up with us,” Kookesh said. “To me it’s an important question, to other people it may not be. But I think the Native community sees this as a question that we have to take to courts to have the State of Alaska recognize that we have a concern here.”
While the case hinged on the narrow issue of who can set catch limits, Kookesh says the men are really challenging the state’s overall subsistence policy.
“We appealed the bag limit of 15 fish per family per year in Angoon,” Kookesh said. “Fifteen fish per family per year, and that’s what we appealed on, because less than two or three miles away we had seine boats getting thousands and thousands of fish intended for that area, sockeye bycatch there. Nobody cited them. But when you’re a commercial boat in Alaska, you can get all you want.”
Kookesh also says fish and game did not get input from Angoon residents before enacting the catch limit.
Mike Mitchell, an attorney with the Alaska Department of Law, says the state is pleased with the Appeals Court’s decision. He says it affirms a longstanding form of fishery regulation, and bolsters the ability of fish and game and the board of fisheries to manage and conserve salmon for all user groups.
Kookesh, a Democrat, served eight years in the Alaska House of Representatives followed by eight years in the state Senate, representing a largely rural district. He lost his seat in 2012 after the state Redistricting Board put him in the same district as Sitka Republican Bert Stedman.
(Note: This story has been updated with reaction from Albert Kookesh and the Alaska Department of Law)