Attorneys argued before the Alaska Court of Appeals in downtown Anchorage yesterday about whether Yup’ik fishermen, who fished for Chinook or king Salmon during a closure on the Kuskokwim River in 2012, were wrongfully convicted.
Attorney James Davis with The Northern Justice Project, an Anchorage-based private civil rights law firm represented the fishermen. He said that the state should have tried to accommodate the fishermen’s religious beliefs.
“The primary issue before this court is whether the state of Alaska had a duty under the free exercise clause to accommodate the Yupik fishers spiritual practices under the Frank versus state case and its progeny and whether the state did so. We submit that the state had a duty but failed to comply with the duty,” Davis says.
Due to a reduced run of king salmon the state closed the lower Kuskokwim River subsistence fishery in June 2012. Fishing for king salmon is a key part of Yup’ik spirituality. Dozens of people fished in defiance of the state closure. Many were given fines and some nets were confiscated. A few days later the state opened the area to fishing for other species of salmon, which allowed about 20,000 king salmon to be caught as bycatch.
The trial court agreed that king salmon fishing is integral to the Yup’ik religion but convicted the fishermen and decided that Alaska’s need to protect king salmon overrode the fishermen’s religious rights. Thirteen decided to pursue an appeal.
Attorney Laura Fox with the state attorney general’s office argued that issuing citations for fishing during an ‘emergency closure’ was needed to protect king salmon.
“The 2012 Kuskokwim King Salmon run was so weak and the numbers were so far from meeting the object that to say the state should have allowed more harvest is to completely disregard the public trust responsibility to manage that resource for sustained yield,” Fox says. “There was never any harvestable surplus of kings in 2012 and at the end of the day the state missed the escapement objective by 50-thousand fish.”
The ACLU, the Associate of Village Council Presidents and the Alaska Federation of Natives have filed amicus briefs in the case. Julie Kitka, President of the Alaska Federation of Natives attended the hearing. She says AFN supports the Yup’ik fishermen.
“Anybody in the Native community that knows traditional Yup’ik people know that their spirituality and their beliefs are a core part of who they are with everything that they do – how they treat their parents, how they treat their children, how they treat their neighbors, how they treat animals that give themselves up to them. You know we’re sad that this is in the court system but we hope the justices will give some consideration to them.”
A panel of three judges will weigh the arguments in the case of David Phillip versus the state of Alaska and issue a decision, likely sometime later this year or early next year.
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