Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Alaska's Compelling Interest In Limiting Yupik Eskimos' Salmon Fishing Trumps Free Exercise Claim

In an Alaska state trial court yesterday, acting Alaska District Court Judge Bruce G. Ward ruled in a 7-page opinion that Yupik Eskimos may not assert free exercise defenses to citations against them for illegally fishing for King Salmon.  The judge held that while subsistence fishing by the Alaska Natives may well be the practice of their religion, the state has a compelling interest in placing limitations on the taking of Chinook salmon. According to yesterday's Alaska Dispatch, the court-- distinguishing a 1979 Alaska Supreme Court decision-- held:
based on the testimony of the fisheries biologists present during the evidentiary hearing, that the natural consequences of allowing the unfettered taking of Chinook salmon under the religious free exercise exception through subsistence harvest urged by the defendants would result in ... the decimation of the species by over fishing.
In a colloquy with defense counsel, the Judge Ward said: "This court understands there will be an appeal, and frankly I think there should be."  Some 22 defendants are standing trial on charges growing out of a "fish-in" protest last year. (Background.)

UPDATE: Alaska Native News reports: "Many of the fishermen were found guilty on Monday when proceedings re-started. They were given $500 fines with $250 suspended and one -year probation."

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