BETHEL -- Not far from the banks of the still solidly frozen Kuskokwim River, a series of trials aimed at establishing the fishing rights of the Yupik Eskimos of far Western Alaska opened Monday with a victory for the salmon still far at sea.

Before a single witness could be called to the stand, acting Alaska District Court Judge Bruce G. Ward read a seven-page opinion eviscerating the idea Alaska Natives living along the Kusko had any right to violate state laws intended to protect salmon.

He recognized that subsistence fishing might well constitute a religious belief as defined by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1979, 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?' "

FULL STORY: Judge finds salmon run survival trumps Native fishermen religious rights