Alaska Supreme Court hears arguments on legality of state setting subsistence harvest limits

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska Supreme Court justices on Tuesday heard the appeal of fish overharvest citations for fishermen, including former state Sen. Albert Kookesh, whose attorney argued that communities should weigh in before the Department of Fish and Game sets limits in subsistence fisheries.

Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat, and other fishermen were cited in 2009 for catching more sockeye salmon than allowed under a subsistence fishing permit in the Kanalku Lake area near Angoon, the Alaska Dispatch News ( ), an Anchorage newspaper, reported.

The state Department of Fish and Game in 2001 concluded that sockeye numbers had fallen to dangerous levels, puting the fishery at risk. The department met with Angoon residents and established voluntary catch limits. The department in 2006 altered terms of subsistence permits and reduced annual catch from 25 salmon to 15 salmon per family.

Kookesh and three other men seining on the lake in 2009 caught 148 sockeye salmon, according to the citation.

A decision favoring the fishermen could have "far-reaching" implications because it could invalidate fishing and hunting permit limits across the state, said Seth Beausang, a state assistant attorney general.

"Such a ruling would call into question hundreds of regulations that allow the Department of Fish and Game to include permit conditions that are not explicitly spelled out in regulation," Beausang said.

The state Board of Fisheries can delegate its authority for setting harvest limits to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Beausang said. The fishery near Angoon had been "near collapse" and decisions need to be made annually, not by the board every three years when it discusses regional proposals.

Kookesh said he challenged the harvest limit in part because there had been no public testimony on how the department capped the limit at 15 sockeye per year.

"They never had public input and secondly they didn't define family. It could be a family of two or a family of 15," Kookesh said.

The attorney for the fishermen, John "Sky" Starkey told justices it was not legal for a state biologist to unilaterally set a limit for such an important fishery. The decision was made behind closed doors, he said, with no record of how 15 sockeyes was chosen as the limit.

Information from: Alaska Dispatch News,

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