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Alaskans debate whether religion of Native Alaskans is more important than state salmon fishing rules

Alaskans debate whether religion of Native Alaskans is more important than state salmon fishing rules

A hot debate is going on in Alaska over whether the religious rights of Native Alaskans are more important than state salmon fishing rules in light of a recent case in which a judge ruled that the needs of salmon trumps everyone's and anyone's religious rights.  The backstory runs thus:  There was an emergency river closure last summer in Alaska by the state in order, they say, to ensure that Chinook salmon made it to their spawning grounds to ensure the run in coming years.  Two dozen Yupik fishermen went fishing anyway, for subsistence reasons–they depend upon the fish to feed their families.  When they were caught by Alaska State Trooper Brett Gibbens,  Gibbens said he found them fishing with an illegally large mesh.  He wrote a citation, and the whole thing wound up in court.   The ACLU got involved. A rally in tandem with the Idle No More movement was held.

The defense of the Yupik fishermen rested on a precedent case decided by the Alaska Supreme Court who found previously based on a 35 year old case Frank v. State that subsistence fishing is religiously protected.  Craig Medred of the Alaska Dispatch adds:

The high court ruled in 1979 that Interior Athabascan Indians had a right to shoot a moose to provide food for traditional funeral potlatches. Davis argued that set a precedent for allowing the harvest of Chinook, or king salmon, by the Yupik as a religious activity.

And when a Yupik elder, Noah Okoviak, testified in the case against the two dozen Yupik fishermen, about the way things used to be among his people, the courtroom clearly sided with the old man:

The old man spent Monday morning on the stand testifying in Yupik, his Native tongue, about how life along the river used to be way before Taco Bell came to visit this remote village and the Subway sandwich came to stay.

It was moving testimony about his deep emotional and spiritual connection to his ancestors and to the living, breathing spirits of the fish that swarm up the Kuskokwim River ever year. The translator started to break down as Okoviak recounted his life along the river and pretty soon the whole courtroom was in tears or close to it.

When Okoviak made his final plea at sentencing, the crowd rose to its feet to support him. He thanked the court system and Alaska State Troopers for giving him a hearing. Then, as with others before, the judge fined Okoviak $500, but obviously moved by the life story of a now-old man out of work, Ward suspended all but $450.

However, the judge decided that he didn't want the religious rights of Yupik fishermen argued in his courtroom that day, so before witnesses could be called to the stand on Monday, the judge ruled that the salmon were more important than Native Alaskan religion.  Medred of the Alaska Dispatch explains the judge's opinion:

In a carefully crafted, seven-page opinion, Ward held that subsistence fishing might well constitute a religious belief as defined by the Alaska Supreme Court, but added that "the question remains, is there a compelling reason for the limitations placed by the state on the subsistence taking of Chinook salmon?

"The court finds that there is. This finding is based on the testimony of the research biologists who testified at length and in detail that the Chinook salmon run was perilously small. The expressed concern was, 'is this the year we wipe out the run?'"

Davis, joined by the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), had argued that a nearly 35-year-old state Supreme Court decision — Frank v. State — provides religious protection for subsistence fishing. The high court ruled in 1979 that Interior Athabascan Indians had a right to shoot a moose to provide food for traditional funeral potlatches. Davis argued that set a precedent for allowing the harvest of Chinook, or king salmon, by the Yupik as a religious activity.

The judge didn't see it that way because of differences in how the two resources are managed.

"This is unlike the underlying situation in Frank," Ward said in a firm, steady voice, reading from his written opinion in a small court room packed with observers and some of about two-dozen defendants awaiting trial on charges of illegal fishing. "The Frank court stated, 'the state does not urge that an exemption granted to Athabascans needing moose meat for a funeral potlatch will result in so many moose taken as to jeopardize appropriate population levels.'

It seems many Alaskans do not agree with the verdict.   In an opinion piece published a few days ago in the Fairbanks Daily News- Miner, the argument was presented that indeed, the judge was right, and religion shouldn't trump state salmon fishing rules.  Commenters did not agree.  One commenter cited the argument that commercial fishermen take many more Chinook salmon in their bycatch than Native fishermen catch for subsistence:

Prosecuting the native fishermen is wrong. Here is why. Cora Campbell, our commissioner of Fish and Game, nods and smiles and "what-me-worries?" about the 60,000 king salmon "accidentally" caught in the Bering Sea as bycatch — 60,000 king salmon, folks, not 60,000 pounds of king salmon.

The traditional Alaska subsistence take of Yukon kings is about 50,000 fish. Corporations are allowed to waste more kings than that as bycatch. But we prosecute First Alaskans for trying to put them on the dinner table.

In an attempt to make the waste seem benevolent, Bering Sea processors passed on almost half a million pounds of the bycatch fish to food banks in Washington.

The bycatch bypassed Alaskans. So maybe you're saying to yourself, "Hey, just give the bycatch salmon to the folks on the river and it's all good!"

But that won't fill the need described by the fishermen on trial in Bethel. It's not just about food, it's about purpose and family and connection to the land.

And commenters on the Alaska Dispatch article declaring the verdict against the religious rights of Native Yupiks also noted the seeming unfairness between what commercial fisheries are allowed to do and what Native fishermen aren't, with many saying that the state of Alaska is biased against Native subsistence fishermen:

–How many thousands and thousands of Kings were caught in this winters Commercial Trawl Cod Fishery, once again the ADF&G will close the YK King Salmon Subsistence Fishery because of low numbers of King Salmon being counted. Alaska need to demand a strong accounting of any King Salmon by-catch in the trawl cod fishery and a stronger penalty after a boat catches so many Kings or they will never make changes in the way they fish.
When are the judges going to tell Commercial Trawl Cod Fisheries and the managers that they are good and tired of making them look like a bunch of evil white old codgers with no compassion for Alaska's First People's and their right to food security.

–Big government makes me sick to my stomach. Enough is enough. Our AK Natives have been feeding their families this way for generations and now our judicial system decides rules have been broken and punishment is in order…. I don't understand it.

And indeed, the inequity seems to be weighed in favor of commercial fishing, a lot of which goes to supply corporations like McDonald's, whose fish bites are made of pollock, the fish that also comes with salmon by-catch casualties. But pollock is a billion dollar industry for Alaska.  So it seems it is easier to stop the Native subsistence fishing than it would be to shoot oneself in the foot, make changes to reduce by-catch, and potentially lose billions.   In March of this year, an editorial piece in the Alaska Dispatch asked "Why Do Seattle's Homeless Get to Feast on Alaska's King Salmon Bycatch?"

Trawlers dragging their nets in the Gulf of Alaska out-of-sight over the horizon from most state ports may be catching and killing more king salmon than the residents of the 49th state would like, but don't worry. The fish aren’t going to waste.

They’re going to feed the homeless in Seattle and elsewhere in the state of Washington.

Stephanie Madsen, executive director for the Seattle-based At-Sea Processors Association, explained to the state House Special Committee on Fisheries this past week that Alaska bycatch salmon are shipped south to SeaShare, an organization that bills itself as "The Seafood Industry's Answer to Hunger." Seashare passes the salmon on toFood LifeLine.

Food LifeLine, in turn, distributes food to 300 food banks and shelters in western Washington, including a considerable number in Seattle. "Food LifeLine, our local partner, moved almost 500,000 pounds of high-protein fish last year," the SeaShare website says. […]

Hundreds of miles away in Western Alaska, the situation was worse. Civil disobedience broke out there after the state ordered the closure of subsistence fisheries for kings on the Kuskokwim River. Arrests and trials followed. Many were left angry. Plenty since have blamed bycatch as the cause of faltering runs in Alaska rivers.

Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council presidents, has called for a boycott of McDonalds because its Fish McBites are made from pollock, the main catch of the trawl fishery that kills some kings as so-called "bycatch." McDonald's promotes the McBites as made from fish from a sustainable fishery.

"It's not sustainable because it is taking away another sustainable fishery that has been in existence for ages, and making criminals out of people fishing for food, not for profit," Naneng said.

Bethel is a largely Native community of about slightly more than 6,000 people on the banks of the Kuskokwim River about 400 miles west of Anchorage. People there were hard hit by the king salmon closure on the river last summer.

There is no scientific evidence to support the belief that bycatch in the trawl fisheries is to blame for the widespread decline in Alaska king salmon stocks. The number of kings reported as bycatch in the trawl fisheries barely puts a dent in the number of kings missing from Alaska streams this summer. But there is a widespread popular belief among all fishermen that bycatch is a problem for Alaska.

Previously, some of the involved Native fishermen were fined $250.00 and put on probation for a year.

The below video shows Alaska Native nets being seized by Alaska state officials last June.


About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
  • Deborah_B

    Wow, this is a tough one all the way around and I can see pro-con points for every single interest involved in this. Seems to me natural resources ought to trump religion, or more preferably, be managed in a way to support the Tribal religious beliefs or culture. The culture and environment should supersede the commercial interests, in my mind. If managed in a way to protect the environment and traditional culture, the commercial interests should still be able to profit as well.

    • Diane Yoder

      I totally agree. I just wish this story would get more press. I notice that Native American issues hardly ever get press unless one of them is going to prison for something and that is just unjust. The circulation on this story was pretty tiny, just confined to Alaska, not the lower 48.

      • borehead

        I have been posting articles about this issue at http://fisherynation.com/
        It is viewed by folks from around the world.

  • Marian L Shatto

    I would like to see their sources for stating that there is no scientific evidence that by-catch is to blame for depletion of the salmon runs. Could it be that the commercial fisheries have stymied any attempt to get an accurate count of by-catch and other data necessary to complete a scientific study?

    • Diane Yoder

      I think you are right. Probably scared to report for fear of backlash by the multimillion dollar corporations.

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