Trials began yesterday for two dozen Kuskokwim subsistence fishermen who allegedly fished with salmon nets when they were restricted this past summer. The first three fishermen were found guilty at the Bethel District Court House today. The politics of subsistence rights versus state restrictions weighs far heavier on the trials than the violations themselves, worth $250 each.
The defense is arguing that the State did not properly notify the Yup’ik speaking fishermen of the restrictions, which changed frequently during the low King salmon run in June.
Defense Attorney, Jim Davis, is with the law firm Northern Justice Project, which is representing all the fishermen pro bono.
“In the King salmon fishery this year, Fish and Game issued not one emergency order, not two, but 22 emergency orders that Fish and Game expected individuals like Mr. David to know about on almost a daily basis,” said Davis.
The State’s prosecutor, Chris Carpeneti, is arguing that the cases are about an emergency order that was violated, saying they don’t have to prove that the defendants knew about the emergency orders. And so far, the court agrees. The court found that the State has followed the law and that the fishermen are responsible for learning the rules before they fish.
The first fisherman to face trial was 48-year-old Harry David of Tuntutuliak. He was found guilty for fishing with a net that was over 6 inches in mesh size on June 22.
David testified that he didn’t know about the fishing regulations. He said he didn’t have a VHF radio or computer to check. He said he did have a radio but didn’t listen to it all the time. And he said he never saw an order posted in the village.
“I thought it was 6 inch or less because it was the only net that my sister had,” David said. “She told me it was in the boat, and she told me to go fishing, that they lifted the closure.”
Magistrate Bruce Ward said that it was David’s responsibility to know what was legal before he went out fishing and that ignorance is no excuse.
“Based on this evidence, the court finds that Mr. David was at a minimum reckless in his failure to learn the specifics of the restrictions in place on June 22, 2012, the date that he was cited,” Ward said when giving the verdict.
The court found that the way the Alaska Department of Fish and Game distributed the emergency order was adequate. That included announcements in English and Yup’ik on the radio, a Kuskowim River Salmon Management Working Group member from the village disseminating the information, and a Fish and Game worker hand carrying the emergency order to the village tribal council on June 20th.
The Defense told the court that the fishermen wanted to explain why they were out fishing for subsistence. That happened in the second trial for 58-year-old Adolph Lupie, also of Tuntutuliak. He said his parents fished and fed him salmon all his life.
“I grew up eating dry fish,” Lupie said. “Now they’re gone, I still go out there and. . . taking over. Every year we move to the fish camp.”
One specific sticking point that the court found in Lupie’s case was that although he testified that he didn’t know about gear restrictions, the judge wondered why he told the trooper citing him that his 8 inch net was just 6 inches.
“He surely, the court can find, would know the difference between 6 inch and 8 inch gear, just to his naked eye based on his experience,” Ward said.
The third case went just as fast. Emil Williams of Bethel was found guilty for similar reasons. He was fishing with larger net gear on June 25.
All three fishermen were sentenced to a $500 fine with half suspended and put on probation for one year. Williams said he didn’t want to be on probation and would pay the full fine. The judge then reduced the fine to $350.
Two more fishermen trials were scheduled Tuesday but postponed.
The next batch of fishermen trials are scheduled to start November 13.