ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Some call it a protest by Alaska Native subsistence fishermen, but that's not the way it looks to Harry David and a couple dozen others charged with illegally fishing for king salmon in waters severely restricted by the state because of dismal runs of the prized fish.
"We've been taught since we were growing up to gather food from the land for winter," said David, a Yup'ik Eskimo from the western Alaska village of Tuntutuliak. David, 48, is heading for trial in Bethel northeast of his village and is contesting non-criminal charge of using the wrong-size net in June at the Kuskokwim River.
The trials starting Monday reflect a clash between ancient traditional practices and modern government restrictions. Supporters say Alaska Natives should have a more of say in managing their fishing grounds and that it's their inherent right to fish. State and federal officials say Native input is important, but ultimately, ensuring sustainability for future runs is always the overriding priority. The poor king runs this year led to federal disaster declarations for the Yukon-Kuskokwim area as well as Cook Inlet.
Enough fish need to escape to spawn, and lower runs in recent years have forced smaller allowances that subsistence fishermen aren't used to, said John Linderman, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In the Kuskokwim this year, restrictions were the tightest ever implemented, shutting down most of the entire run, which occurs in June through early July. Later runs of other salmon species were plentiful.
"It all boils down to - or comes back to - escapement and what's available for harvest," he said. "The actions taken with respect to the subsistence fishery on the Kuskokwim this year - there wasn't an adequate number of surplus fish."
Altogether, 60 fishermen from several villages defied the restrictions and originally faced misdemeanor charges of fishing in closed waters and/ or using restricted gear. The charges for all but a few were reduced to minor violations, according to prosecutors. A little more than half of the fishermen pleaded guilty to the reduced non-criminal charges and were ordered to pay $250 fines.
Sammy Jackson, a 49-year-old Yup'ik fisherman from the village of Akiak originally was charged with both misdemeanors and is fighting the remaining gear violation. People have to catch kings to dry in June before rains and flies arrive. The largest salmon species, kings also are highly valued for their high fat content, which rural Alaska Natives say helps get them through extreme winters.
Fishing in the closed waters was a necessity, not a protest, Jackson said.
"We were exercising our God-given rights as a first people of this land," he said, adding Alaska Natives want more input in the face of increasingly shorter opportunities for fishing. "We pleaded for years for biologists to work with us. You had to be fishing around here all your life to understand and know the fish of this river."
For decades, Alaska Natives have sought a Native subsistence priority on lands where they historically fished and hunted. Jim Davis, an Anchorage attorney representing the fishermen pro-bono, said this summer's conflict followed years of ever tightening restrictions. Government managers do consult with Alaska Natives through a salmon planning group. But managers always have the last say.
"I think what's happening here," he said, "is there's this tipping point where you have just these law-abiding, devout, religious elders saying, 'We're not going to take it anymore.'"
For every subsistence fisherman who contested the restrictions, scores more honored them, according to 21-year-old Megan Leary, who is part Yup'ik and has been subsistence fishing most of her life.
Leary lives in Bethel and practices subsistence fishing near Napaimute, where she serves on the village's traditional council. She said the region is far more competitive today because of a larger population that didn't exist when Native elders were growing up. Chum and red salmon runs were enough to ensure that no one would go hungry this year, she said.
For Leary and other young Natives, the restrictions were for the better for future runs. But many of her peers don't talk about it, fearing they'll be scolded by elders. Still, Alaska Natives survived for generations because they adapted to the changes, she noted. She believes that needs to happen today as well.
"Subsistence is taking anything the land offers," she said. "And being thankful for it."