State questions religious protection for fishermen

State prosecutors are disputing religious protection claims by Alaska Native fishermen cited for illegal fishing who say bans on their subsistence lifestyle violate their spiritual freedoms.

The state says in a court filing this week that the fishermen “raised an issue without adequately briefing it.”

Prosecutors were responding to a motion seeking to consolidate the April trials of 21 fishermen to allow two specialists to testify as pro bono experts on Yup’ik Eskimo culture and spiritual matters. The fishermen were cited last year during a weak king salmon run.

The fishermen’s attorney, James J. Davis, Jr., says the ancient tradition of subsistence fishing is considered a sacred activity by many. But he adds the issue ultimately may have to be decided by a higher court, possibly the Alaska Supreme Court.