ACLU supports Yup’ik fishermen in trial

by Angela Denning-Barnes on February 12, 2013

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is joining the Yup’ik fishermen trials. The group has filed an amicus or “friend of the court brief” in support of the fishermen’s right to fish as part of their religious practice.

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The case includes 21 Yup’ik subsistence fishermen who were cited last summer for fishing illegally in the Kuskokwim River. The prosecution maintains that the fishermen were using King nets when the river was closed to nets that size. Subsistence fishing was being restricted to ensure more King salmon made it to the tributaries to spawn.

However, the defense, the pro bono firm Northern Justice Project, is arguing that those restrictions go against the fishermen’s first amendment rights. Attorney James Davis Jr. says the case goes to the core of the Alaska constitution.

Alaska’s American Civil Liberties Union agrees. Jeffrey Mittman is the group’s Executive Director.

“It’s important that the State and Court recognize that fishing is a significant religious aspect to the way of life of these Alaska Native communities,” Mittman said.

Three fishermen were already found guilty in court in October. Back then the defense argued that the fishermen didn’t know what was and wasn’t legal because the regulations were changing frequently. The three fishermen were fined $250 each.

Since then, the defense has pursued first amendment rights. On Monday, they filed a brief with the court that focuses on the fishermen’s religious rights and their spiritual connection to the fish. The document states that if Yup’ik people do not fish for King salmon, the King salmon spirit will be offended and it will not return to the river. It says that the King salmon play an even more unique role in the Yupiit spiritual life than do other animals because it is the first “fresh meat” after a long winter.

ACLU’s Mittman says restricting fishermen from fishing for King salmon goes against their fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom to practice their religious beliefs.

“Unfortunately, currently in the State of Alaska, there is no mechanism for the State in making determinations of resource allocation to take in consideration these religious needs,” Mittman said.

The defense’s new brief suggests that the State should limit non-Yupiit fishermen in the region before restricting Yup’ik fishermen. It says that the State has been limiting Yup’ik subsistence fishermen but never sought to limit just the non-Yupiit, particularly the thousands who are living in Bethel. It says that the non-Yupiit are able to catch as many Kings as they want without having spiritual or religious connections to the fish.

Davis says if they prevail, the case could lead to major changes on the state level, looking at allocating resources by people and not geography.

“It will require the State to sit down with tribes like Yup’ik tribes and say, ‘How can we try to accommodate your cultural, spiritual needs and at the same time, protect the resource whether it’s moose or King salmon?’,” Davis said.

The brief also mentions the State’s lack of attention to the by-catch wasted in the Pollock trawl fleet. It says for years, the Pollock fleet has caught and wasted tens of thousands of King salmon, many of which are headed to the Kuskokwim River. It says instead of ending this practice, the State has instead, supported the fleet’s request for high by-catch limits. It says the State could sue or take action against the fishery or the federal government and demand protection of the rights of Yupiit people.

The trial of the 21 remaining fishermen is scheduled to happen April 15 at the Bethel Court House.

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