The Yup’ik fishermen who were cited for fishing during a closure on the lower Kuskokwim River will not appeal their case to the Alaska Supreme Court.
The Alaska Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision in March.
An attorney with Anchorage-based law firm, the Northern Justice Project, James Davis, who represented the fishermen, says they decided not to appeal for several reasons.
First, he said they did not think there was a very good chance of the Supreme Court acting to protect Native subsistence rights based on his interpretation of the court’s history.
Secondly, the court of appeals acknowledged that Native subsistence rights had a spiritual component, said Davis, and might be deserving of protections under the religious protections of the constitution and they did not want the Supreme Court to invalidate this idea.
Davis adds that the new governor wants to build bridges to the Native community and is interested in partnering with tribes.
In 2012, dozens of Yup’ik Alaska Native fishermen were charged with violating the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s emergency orders when they fished for king salmon on the Kuskokwim River. Thirteen defendants appealed. The defendants argued their fishing was a religious activity, and that they were entitled to a religious exemption under the free exercise clause of the Alaska Constitution.
The court of appeals said the health of the diminished king salmon run outweighed the fishermen’s individual rights.
Davis says the better forum to challenge the state’s undermining of Native subsistence is in federal court, but says they are not pursuing a federal case now.
Davis adds that even though the Yup’ik fishermen didn’t prevail in court, they accomplished what they set out to do, which is to make the state acknowledge the critical importance of Native subsistence rights and their connection to Yup’ik spirituality.
Yukon Kuskokwim Delta tribes have been working toward tribal co-management of the Kuskokwim River’s struggling salmon population in meetings in Bethel this week.