The trials for 22 Kuskokwim fishermen cited last summer begin Monday in Bethel. In question is whether or not they had the constitutional religious rights to fish for salmon even with State closures in place. Judge Bruce Ward said he is blocking out two weeks to hear the trials.
During a pre-trial hearing today, Ward said the cases have been lingering for about a year and they needed to be decided. The court will try the fishermen separately, but will hear from expert witnesses on Monday and Tuesday with individual trials following that.
The fishermen are from several villages along the Lower Kuskokwim River. They were cited last summer for fishing with King salmon gear when it was closed to gear that size. Some of them had their nets seized. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game restricted fishing because biologists were seeing low return numbers in their testing projects and wanted to make sure enough salmon made it to the tributaries to spawn. Initially, they closed King fishing for seven days which gained support from many tribes but when they extended it for five more days, tribal elders told their fishermen to fish anyway.
The fishermen are being represented pro bono by James Davis Jr. with the Northern Justice Project.
The trials of three additional fishermen were decided in October in Bethel. Back then, the defense argued that they were not informed about the closures and were not aware they were breaking the law. The court found them guilty and fined them $250.
After that, the defense changed courses and now plans to argue for first amendment rights and that the fishermen are spiritually connected to the salmon.
The Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is supporting the fishermen, saying that restricting them from fishing for King salmon goes against their fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom to practice their religious beliefs.
The National Congress of American Indians has also come out in support of the fishermen.
The trial starts Monday at 9 a.m. at the Bethel Court House.