About 25 subsistence fishermen will soon head to trial for alleged illegal fishing during closures this past summer and many of them are being represented for free by a civil rights law firm.
The first trial is scheduled for October 29 in the Bethel District Court. During a pre-trial conference Tuesday (Oct. 16), the fishermen refused the State’s plea deals again and said they would rather go to trial than plead guilty for subsistence fishing for their families.
A handful of fishermen are being represented by state public defenders, but most of them—22 in all—are being represented pro bono by the Northern Justice Project, a private law firm focusing on civil rights cases.
James Davis Jr., an attorney with the law firm, said “when we saw the Yup’ik fishermen being cited or arrested this past summer, it seemed to be outrageous.”
Davis says he used to live in the Bethel area which taught him how critical subsistence is to the Yup’ik people.
“It’s just too important of an issue to have, I think, brave fishermen who have, you know, put themselves in harms way to go to court without a lawyer helping them,” Davis said.
Those 22 fishermen had their charges reduced to citations or violations and were not provided public defenders. Bethel District Attorney, June Stein, said the charges were reduced because those fishermen only committed the crime of fishing with wrong sized nets. The other fishermen who are being represented by public defenders are being charged with misdemeanors for other fishing violations, she says.
Each fishermen will be tried separately.
They are all being charged with illegal salmon fishing this summer. Several villages up and down the Kuskokwim organized to fish on June 20 during a 12-day closure. Some fishermen were encouraged to do so by their elders. Some tribes drafted resolutions saying they had the right to fish as sovereign governments, and sent them to state and federal governments.
The fishermen contend they were subsistence fishing for their families for their winter food supplies.
The trials are expected to run through mid-November.