Fishermen Found Guilty, Although Court Agrees Subsistence Salmon Fishing is Religious

Photo Credit: Alaska PublicNearly 50 fishermen were cited for illegal salmon fishing last June. Half of them pled not guilty and have been fighting it in court ever since.

In recent weeks, the fishermen had been waiting to hear a decision on whether they have the religious right to subsistence fish, even during state closures.

The trial resumed May 20 in Bethel and the fishermen packed into the courtroom with some people left standing in the hallway. It was a trial by judge and Judge Bruce Ward, in a gentle voice, said the court found that the state’s need to restrict King salmon supersedes the fishermen’s right to religious practice.

“The court wants all parties to know that this was a very difficult decision to make,” Ward said. “This was not easy.”

The fishermen were challenging the state based on a free exercise clause of the Alaska constitution, arguing that subsistence fishing is a religious practice and that when they fished last summer during closures, they were practicing their religion.

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