A pile of salmon awaits filleting on May 7, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
The federal government sued Alaska’s state government and the state Department of Fish and Game on Tuesday, saying in a filing at the U.S. District Court in Anchorage that the state illegally opened the Kuskokwim River for salmon fishing.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to block similar future actions by the state.
Low salmon returns have caused state and federal fisheries managers to repeatedly restrict fishing on the Kuskokwim and other rivers.
In 2021 and 2022, federal managers declared a fishery emergency on portions of the Kuskokwim River within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and barred all fishing except subsistence fishing.
According to the federal lawsuit, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued contradictory emergency orders in 2021 that said non-subsistence fishermen could fish on the same stretches of rivers covered by the federal ban.
The state disputes the federal lawsuit’s assertions.
“Despite the language in the complaint,” said assistant attorney general Grace Lee, who frequently speaks on behalf of the department, “the emergency orders from DF&G clearly state that it is opening to subsistence users only — not all Alaskans.”
“Many of these subsistence users are those that have cultural ties to the area and family that still lives there, and they come and subsistence fish to continue their traditions,” she said.
At the time, the different language of the federal and state orders created confusion among fishermen who weren’t sure what was legal. Afterward, state and federal officials said they would work to improve coordination, and the federal subsistence board — which regulates subsistence hunting and fishing on federal land and water — began considering legal options.
The state government has repeatedly clashed with the federal subsistence board about fish and game issues in the state.
In Tuesday’s lawsuit, assistant federal attorney general Todd Kim said the state violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution by attempting to usurp authority from the federal government.
“The state’s actions threaten the conservation of the Chinook and chum salmon populations, usurp the rural priority, and reduce opportunities for those who are most dependent on the salmon resources of the Kuskokwim River for their physical, economic, traditional, and cultural existence – local rural residents,” the lawsuit said.
Daniel Cacciatore, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Law, said the state stands by its management decisions, though it’s still reviewing the complaint.
“These decisions are based on a foundation of sound science guided by a management plan and metrics vetted through the Alaska Board of Fisheries with input from the local stakeholder working group. This ensures that there are adequate subsistence opportunities for Alaskans while adhering to the sustainability principle enshrined in the Alaska Constitution,” he said by email.
“It is unfortunate that the federal government is choosing to litigate instead of working together with the state to meet the subsistence needs of all Alaskans who have not only a nutritional dependency on these fisheries but have close cultural and traditional ties as well,” he said.
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