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Alaska subsistence salmon case draws to a weird close in Bethel courtroom

Craig Medred
Defendant Felix Flynn swears to tell the truth before acting District Court Judge Bruce Ward in a Bethel courtroom earlier this week. Loren Holmes photo

BETHEL -- As the last of the trials from last June’s Rumble on the River wound to a close here Wednesday, with defense attorneys gone back to the comfort of Anchorage and some defendants missing as well, things got a little weird. The final defendant turned out to be from a village far, far away.
 
Court began at 9 a.m., with black-haired Tom Carl from Tuluksak, population 373, left to sit alone at the defense table in handcuffs and a blue prison jumpsuit while the attorney defending him dialed in on her cellphone from somewhere to the south.

But at least Carl, prosecutors and acting District Court Judge Bruce Ward were in a courtroom lit dimly enough to leave one with the impression that outside it must still be the long dark of winter in Alaska.

Telephonic justice? 

The handcuffs and jumpsuit, it should be noted, were not related to Carl being cited for illegal fishing the Kuskowim River last June for Chinook, the fish more often called king salmon. The cuffs and prison attire were related to other charges against the middle-age Carl, a man so soft-spoken he could hardly be heard when he finally took the stand to answer the fishing charges related to last summer's protest on the Kusko.

That, however, couldn't happen until after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Christopher Johnson dialed from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to testify in the case. Johnson, who flew north from the Kenai Peninsula last summer to ticket Carl, testified against him over the phone.

From that point, things proceeded smoothly and routinely, much as they had in the two-dozen cases heard this week before Ward:

A fisheries officer testified as to what happened on the river. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss charges on the basis that nets weren't measured properly or the state emergency order restricting the fishery wasn't properly drafted. The judge denied the motions. The defense attorneys called their defendants to the stand and walked each along a winding road that eventually led to the men (all defendants were men) saying they believed in "Ellum Yua,'' the Yupik Eskimo creator of the universe and supreme being.

In all cases but one, the judge recognized the defendant was "sincere'' in his belief that "Ellum Yua'' expected him to fish and that this might give the defendant some sort of religious right to fish, but then he declared each guilty. 

"The court finds,'' he said again and again, "there is a compelling state interest in maintaining a viable, large and healthy salmon stock."

Both state and federal fisheries biologists had earlier testified the only way to a healthy stock is to limit harvests. They say the king fishery was shut down last summer only because they had no choice -- there were not enough fish.

45,000 kings short of spawning goal

Properly managed, the Kusko would appear capable of supporting an average annual harvest of about 100,000 kings each year. The harvest last year was about 60,000 and biologists fell about 45,000 fish short of the spawning goal. 

The spawning goal has been lowered to a minimum of 60,000 for this year. In the short term that might provide more fish for the gillnets of the river's subsistence fishery, but it doesn't help the long-term problem. It might even make things worse.

A lot of the fishermen who testified at trial indicated they and their families want about 100 kings a year. At that harvest rate, the river could support only about 1,000 family units if -- and that is a big if -- it can produce a catch of 100,000 kings per year. 

There are more than 6,000 people living in this regional hub alone. The nearly two dozen villages scattered along the Kuskokwim River from McGrath on the edge of the Alaska Range in Interior Alaska to Quinhagak on Kuskokwim Bay along the Bering Sea number another 6,000 to 7,000 more.

The only way the math works is if each family unit numbers on average 12 people, and if the fishing is restricted to the people living in the area now. And that is where things got weird and complicated Wednesday.

Defendant from Anchorage

The last defendant at trial turned out to be from Anchorage, Alaska's largest Native village, home to about 20,000 Yupik, Inupiat and Chugach Eskimos plus Athabascan, Tlingit and Haida Indians. One of them is Oscar Evon, originally from the village of Kwigillingok.

When he took the stand -- telephonically, as did his lawyer -- Judge Ward asked him, as others had been asked, where he was from.

"I currently reside at Anchorage, Alaska," the voice from the speaker said.

"That's a pretty big village," Ward remarked.

"Thank you," Evon said. He later revealed he had been in Anchorage since 2009. Municipal tax records indicate he bought a home near Sand Lake area a year after arriving in the city, but he retains strong ties to his home village.

His 84-year-old father still lives in Kwigillingok.

"That's where our boats and nets are," Evon testified. "The fish camp is a family operation."

Defense attorney Melony Lockwood asked Evon to explain how he can be a resident in Anchorage and a subsistence fisherman on the Kusko.

"I have to travel to Kwigillingok," Evon said. He does that, he said, "every summer I've been able to do it."

That’s not a cheap undertaking.

"It's not like we go fishing with six gallons of gas down from Bethel," he told the judge. No, from Kwigillingok across the Kuskokwim Bay to the river and then upriver to where Evon fishes takes about 40 gallons of gas.

"It's over $300 a trip," Evon said, and that's not counting the flight to Bethel, approximately $450 round trip, and the flight from Bethel to Kwigillingnok, another $350. That's $1,100, which is expensive enough to make any fisherman want to maximize his efficiency.

That's how Evon got into trouble. When Alaska State Troopers caught him, he wasn't just using illegal king salmon gear; he had two, 50-fathom gillnets shackled together to create a mammoth net almost 600-feet-long, or about the length of two football fields. He hadn't quite stretched a net all the way across the river -- "corked it off" as fishermen say -- but he was trying.

"My only concern was providing food for the family," he testified. "My father is 84 years old. Having no food for the entire family would not be good."

He also testified, under oath, that he was unaware subsistence fishermen were limited to a 300-foot-long gillnet. He claimed to have often fished with two nets tied together, though that practice has been illegal for decades.

Ward was angry enough about it that after finding Evon guilty like all the others, he ordered the state to keep the fishermen's king net, although he was allowed to get back a red-and-chum salmon net the state seized when he was cited. The king net has large mesh to snag the gills of the big salmon; red and chum nets have small mesh.

Evon had a king net hooked to a red and chum net the day he was caught fishing in an area where it is never legal to shackle two nets together and where nets had been restricted to smaller mesh to protect kings. Evon told the judge he didn't always fish with a nearly 600-foot-long net.

"Not always," he said. "If the fish are running good, I only use one net. We do what we could to put up fish."

Former president of CVRF 

Evon's story might end there, but for a couple other facts. The 50-something fisherman is unlike most of the other fishermen who appeared before Ward. A lot of them said they were out of work. A lot of them have seldom, if ever, been able to find a job in a region where unemployment runs at 20 to 25 percent of the work force, and where state economists agree those numbers understate reality because so many people have given up looking for jobs.

Evon told the judge he is now unemployed, but until recently he was president and then community services director of the Coastal Villages Region Fund. CVRF is a Kusko salmon and herring buyer with a seafood processing plant in the community of Platinum.

As a member of the board and then the president for the CVRF, Evon would be expected to know Kuskokwim salmon fishing regulations, but it is not salmon for which the CVRF is best known in this area.

The CVRF is one of six community development associations set up by the government to try to spread the wealth of Alaska's offshore trawl fisheries among Alaska Natives in the area. Those six companies have been granted shares -- called "community development quotas" -- of Bering Sea pollock.

Fishing by CDQ organizations in 2011, primarily for pollock, created 2,410 jobs, paying out more than $45.5 million, according to the Western Alaska Community Development Association. There is only one small problem. The CDQ trawlers and others trawlers in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska catch some king salmon while strip mining the sea for pollock. The king catch is limited to 60,000 salmon. How seriously that bycatch affects returns to the Kusko is hotly debated.

Recent research indicates about 70 percent of the king bycatch caught and killed in the $1 billion dollar trawl fishery comes from Western Alaska rivers. The Kusko is one of those rivers, but only one. The Yukon to the north is far bigger, and there are several in Bristol Bay that are far more productive.

More than 100,000 kings returned to the Bristol Bay's Nushugak River alone last summer. Scientists say that when you factor in the many rivers contributing to that trawl bycatch, and recognize that almost all the bycatch is young fish -- a significant portion of which are likely to die before heading for the spawning grounds -- it's hard to say how much the bycatch harms any individual river or stream.

But almost everyone here in the poorest and youngest region of the state believes bycatch is the biggest problem facing the Kusko, and scientists are studying it. 

The real problem, however, is that in a world with more and more people, there are simply never enough salmon to go around. Never enough.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com