Fishermen trials begin in Bethel, first one unresolved by day’s end

by Angela Denning-Barnes on October 29, 2012

Trials began today for 24 fishermen who allegedly fished on the Kuskokwim River with salmon nets when they were restricted this past summer. The fishermen are from different villages along the Kuskokwim River but they are all being charged with the same thing: fishing with nets greater than 6 inch mesh when it was closed to nets that size.

The trial is being heard by Magistrate Bruce Ward.

In court, much of this morning was spent deciding how the trials would proceed. The Prosecution and Defense disagreed on several points including the order of the fishermen to be tried and whether or not to allow certain witnesses to testify.

At about 10:30, the trial of the first of the 24 fishermen began, that of 48-year-old Harry David of Tuntutuliak. He was cited on June 22 near the village. His trial went all day and was not resolved. The judge plans to announce the court’s decision Tuesday morning.

The defense’s arguments hinged on a few key points: that the state did not properly notified David of the fishing restrictions and that the trooper improperly measured David’s net when he was cited.

The private law firm, the Northern Justice Project is representing all 24 fishermen pro bono. Attorney, Jim Davis Jr. told the court that the state did not distribute the fishing rules properly.

“The state has made a mess of the fishery here on the Kuskokwim in a number of different ways,” Davis said.

Davis said Fish and Game issued 22 emergency orders that they expected fishermen to follow. He said that this is a basic fairness issue.

The State’s prosecutor, Chris Carpeneti, called the first witness, Alaska Wildlife Trooper, John Cyr. He cited Harry David for fishing with a net that was over 6 inches. He said David was drift netting at the time. Davis asked the trooper how he measured the net. Cyr said he measured the net from knot to knot, which is how they do it in the field. Nets are required to be measured hanging up wet, with a 5 pound weight attached to it, which the Trooper hadn’t done. The defense asked the court to dismiss Harry David’s case because the net wasn’t measured properly by the trooper, which the Judge said the court would consider. Meanwhile, the State argued that if they measured it the other way, with a weight, David’s net would have been even larger.

The State then called two more witnesses, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and KYUK, to try to establish that the emergency orders were distributed to the public properly. Then defense then cross examined both witnesses trying to establish that there wasn’t enough notice given to the public.

Travis Ellison with the State Department of Fish and Game said in the case of Tuntutuliak, where Harry David is from, he and a trooper hand delivered the June 20th emergency order to the village tribal council.

Harry David was the last witness. He said that he didn’t know that his net was over 6 inches. He said he didn’t know how to measure using the knot-to-knot method. He said he never saw an order posted in the village.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor said it was about common sense.
“We have an emergency order that was violated,” said Carpeneti. “We don’t have to prove that the defendant knew about the emergency order. If that were the case, then anybody could violate an emergency or any law for that matter and come to court and say I didn’t know what the was.”

The defense closed on three main points: The net was improperly measured, the order wasn’t proper distributed, and the state’s announcements were too confusing.

The gallery of Bethel Court Room 4 was full most of the day with representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska State Troopers, several staff from the Association of Village Council Presidents, other tribal leaders, and seniors from the Bethel Senior Center.

The judge said he would have the court’s decision in the morning and he understood that this case would set the stage for the rest.

An interpreter has been translating the court proceedings by telephone.

KYUK will be reporting on the trials as they progress. Check back for updates.

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