Trials scheduled to begin this week for 11 Alaska Native salmon fishermen are now delayed until the court and the attorneys handling the case can figure out what their plan will be moving forward. The group of 11 men is the second wave of fishermen to refute charges they acted illegally by fishing for chinook salmon on Alaska's Kuskokwim River in late June.
Unlike the first handful of defendants to fight the illegal fishing citations, this second batch of men intends to argue it's against the law to criminalize what in their eyes amounts to a constitutionally protected religious freedom.
State fishery managers restricted access to the Chinook salmon, also known as kings, because too little were returning to the river. No one knows with any certainty why the fish have disappeared. Even so, emergency conservation of salmon runs up the river to spawning grounds trumped fishing opportunities, even those generally impinged on last: Access to the fish by village fishermen looking to feed their families.
The first trials, held last month in the Western Alaska regional hub of Bethel, didn't end well for the men who tried to argue they hadn't been aware a fishing ban was in place the day they wet their nets. Alaska State Court Judge Bruce Ward ruled the men should have done more to find out about the rules before they climbed into their boats. And in at least one case, he simply didn't believe the defendant's claims of naiveté, saying it seemed obvious the man knew he was using an oversized net when he lied about it when contacted on the river by law enforcement.
Getting at the truth of what happened is simple: Did the men fish, or not, during a closed period? But the "why" behind the decision to fish this summer is a more complicated mesh, one in which civil disobedience, hunger and cultural preservation are intertwined, tangled with state laws, river management and...