When is Fishing a Crime?
“If I got the means to do it, I will do it,” Phillip said.
“Even if you are breaking the law?” asked his lawyer, James Davis Jr.
“Well, if it comes down to feeding my family, yes,” Phillip answered.
A radio report from KYUK in Bethel made me pull over the Subaru this week. I was listening to the story of Bethel fishermen being prosecuted by the state of Alaska for subsistence fishing during a state-ordered closure.
This was Les Misérables, Alaskanized. Last summer these Native fishermen defied a fishery closure to catch salmon to feed their families. The Yup’ik believe it’s their duty to harvest the fish, that salmon (and all animals) present themselves to the people, and will be offended if they are rejected. It’s a religious philosophy centered on Ellam Yua, the spirit of the universe.
Translators were needed for some testimony, but the men’s defense boiled down to freedom of religion. It wasn’t their words about the value of subsistence that struck me as much as it was the emotion in their voices. They were defending thousands of years of life — a really tough life in a place a long way from Costco.
The judge agreed that the men had a religious connection to the fish, but found them guilty because the state’s interest was more important. They were fined and sentenced to probation. They are appealing.
The state has pushed this case. God knows how much time and money has been spent to prosecute a couple dozen rural Alaskans trying to feed their families. This is a priority for law enforcement?
The decision to put the burden of poor salmon returns on the backs of susbsistence users seems misplaced, to put it mildly.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are real fish pirates in Alaska. We’ve even caught one or two.
For example, Sen. Lisa Murkowski kept fish rustler Arne Fuglvog on the job — helping make federal fish policy — even after he pleaded guilty. She defended that decision by saying he was innocent until proven guilty. I’m not a lawyer like her, but it seems to me that once someone pleads guilty, we can stop presuming their innocence.
So Fuglvog was fined and did some time in prison. He got out and started a business. Doing what, you ask. Making license plates or running a laundry? No, he’s a lobbyist for some big Seattle-based fishing companies. (Note that Arne reversed the usual progression from lobbyist to inmate.)
Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s enforcement office charged American Seafoods, a Seattle-based operator of catcher/processors, with fixing the scales on which they weighed fish.
Last year they were issued a Notice of Violation and Assessment for the same thing. The penalty? It may run about $1.3 million — considerably less than they made by cheating.
In the meantime, 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 — 60,000 king salmon, folks, not 60,000 pounds of king salmon.
Think about that. The traditional Alaska subsistence take of Yukon kings is about 50,000 fish. Corporations are allowed to waste more kings than that. 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 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.
The state sees the salmon as “a resource” to be “managed” and sold. First Alaskans see salmon as one reason they’ve been able to exist here. Salmon may not have a special place in my religion, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t spiritually important for others.
Subsistence fishermen shouldn’t be prosecuted for gathering food that corporations are allowed to waste