AVCP will support fishermen through appeals

by Angela Denning-Barnes on May 23, 2013

Bethel elder, Dana Kopanuk, testifies in the fishermen trials. Photo by Lillian Michael.

Bethel elder, Dana Kopanuk, testifies in the fishermen trials. Photo by Lillian Michael.

The Association of Village Council Presidents will support the Kuskokwim fishermen who were found guilty through their appeals process. About two dozen Kuskokwim fishermen were found guilty in the Bethel Court this week for fishing illegally last summer.

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The fishermen testified in court that they fished during state closures because they were following their tradition and religious practices of feeding their families.

So, what’s next for the fishermen?

“An appeal to the Court of Appeals,” says James Davis Jr. who is defending the fishermen pro bono. He’s with the Northern Justice Project.

“Most of the defendants have filled out the appeal paperwork,” Davis Jr. says. “We’ll be filing it next week. And the case will probably be heard within six months by the Court of Appeals, and we’ll probably have to wait another six months at least for it to make a decision.”

So, it’s likely a year before another court decision is reached on the matter.

At the Bethel court, Judge Bruce Ward researched state laws in his decision making. There is nothing in the Alaska Constitution that stipulates religious practices trump state regulations. He told the fishermen that even though they were sincere in their religious beliefs, there was a need for the state to restrict the Chinook or King run based on low run data last year.

The fishermen have a lot of local support, including from the region’s non-profit Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 tribes. Myron Naneng is AVCP President.

“We’re going to support them when they go through the appeal to the Supreme Court,” Naneng says. “And I know that many Native communities are really watching these cases and I’m sure that many of them from the other parts of the state are going to be in support of the appeal because it also affects them.”

The National Congress of American Indians has voiced support for the fishermen as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

Naneng feels like the Bethel court process has already gained some ground for their cause.

“I think it’s the first time where we’ve seen the state court say that subsistence is just like religion,” Naneng says, “and it should be.”

Something that wasn’t addressed in court, that Naneng has long touted, is the affect of ocean activities on the salmon runs, specifically, the by catch of King salmon by the Pollock trawl fleet. Naneng doesn’t think the in-river subsistence fishermen should bear the brunt of conservation when King salmon are being wasted elsewhere. He says the biologists need to look beyond the numbers they see returning to the river when they make their decisions on closures.

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