Crowd in Bethel rallies for subsistence rights

(AP) — A sign-waving crowd in Bethel gathered Monday to rally for subsistence rights.

The event came at a time when nearly two dozen Yup'ik Eskimo fishermen are facing trials after being cited for illegal fishing on the Kuskokwim River last year during a weak king salmon run.

People held signs at the rally with statements such as "Feeding our families is not a crime" and "Fish equals culture," KYUK ( reported.

A Bethel judge last week adjourned the fishermen's trials until May 20, when he'll rule on whether the defendants have a spiritual right to fish for kings when restrictions are in place.

The non-jury proceedings in Bethel began last week with specialists on Yup'ik culture testifying for the fishermen, who say fishing bans on their subsistence lifestyle violate their spiritual freedoms. The fishermen are employing a religious protection defense.

Prosecutors and state officials have said ensuring sustainability for future runs is crucial, and last year's king numbers were severely low. The dismal runs led to federal disaster declarations for the Yukon-Kuskokwim area and Cook Inlet.

Three other fishermen tried separately in October in Bethel were found guilty of violating fishing restrictions for kings. The men were each fined $250.

Altogether, 60 fishermen from western Alaska originally faced misdemeanor charges of using restricted gear or fishing in closed sections of the Kuskokwim River during the king run last summer.

Most charges were later reduced to minor violations. Many of the fishermen pleaded guilty to the reduced counts and were ordered to pay $250 fines.

04/24/2013 - 9:17am