JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court's dismissal of illegal fishing charges against former state Sen. Albert Kookesh and other Angoon residents was applauded Friday by the Alaska Federation of Natives as a boost to subsistence rights.
"The court's ruling on this case is good public policy for our rural communities that depend on subsistence," said Julie Kitka, president of AFN. Kookesh is a former co-chair of AFN as well as former chairman of Sealaska Corp., the Southeast Alaska regional Native corporation.
The court issued its ruling Friday from the 2009 incident in which Kookesh and fellow Angoon residents Rocky Estrada, Stanley Johnson and a fourth man were arrested and charged with taking more sockeye than their subsistence permits allowed. The fourth man's charge was changed and he was not part of Friday's decision.
Kookesh challenged the overfishing charges, saying they were the result of unfair state administration of Native and rural subsistence fishing. The bag limits they were accused of violating, he said, had been adopted arbitrarily and did not follow the state's Administrative Procedures Act. Had the act been followed, more justifiable limits might have been established, he said.
Kookesh praised the ruling Friday, saying the years-long case had been stressful for him and his co-defendants but will benefit the state in the end.
"I think this little case from Angoon, Alaska, that talks about bag limits and the Administrative Procedures Act will resonate around Alaska to other bag limits, and I think the Native community and the rural community in Alaska can benefit," he said.
A Juneau judge first dismissed the citations, but the state appealed and they were reinstated by the Alaska Court of Appeals.
"One court agreed with us and one court disagreed with us, and the Supreme Court had the final word and they agreed with us," Kookesh said.
The Department of Fish and Game said it was still studying the ruling. It was too soon to say how broad its reach might be, a department official said.
"Certainly the decision is going to have some impact, the magnitude and how far reaching those impacts are would be premature for me to try to speculate on," said Scott Kelley, director of the Commercial Fisheries Division.
Kelley said the department will convene a meeting of its leadership with the Department of Law to analyze the decision.
"There's enough in it and it is significant enough that we have some things we need to work through to make sure we fully understand the court's decision," he said.
Kookesh said he'd been out on the water the day of the citations but hadn't been fishing himself. He said he asked to be cited with the others so he could be part of the challenge of what they saw as an unfair and arbitrary regulation.
The four men in the boat had been harvesting salmon for families in Angoon, but the bag limit was 15 fish for each family. The four had 148 fish in their boat when they were contacted by a Fish and Game trooper.
Among the criticisms of the charges identified by the court was that the Administrative Procedures Act requires a public comment period before such regulations can be adopted. Angoon community leaders were first notified of the 15-fish limit after it had already been adopted by the department, the court said.
"We had to get citations," Kookesh said, to challenge the limits and the process.
Kitka praised the group for their actions.
"AFN congratulates the four Angoon fishermen and the community of Angoon," she said.
Kookesh said that the last six years in which the case has progressed have been difficult and he's just glad to have it over, whatever the outcome.
Fishing issues such as subsistence and rural preference spur emotions around the state. Kookesh said he was confronted by a non-Native man in a Juneau restaurant after his arrest who told him, "You ought to be in jail."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing