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Judge permits limited gillnet fishing for all Alaskans along Kuskokwim, for now

The judge sided with Alaska on whether, for the moment, all Alaskans will be allowed to take advantage of openings to fish on the river.

(CN) — A federal judge rebuffed a bid by the U.S. government to block Alaskans who aren’t “qualified subsistence users” from gillnet fishing on certain days along a 180-mile-long section of the Kuskokwim River within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. District Judge Sandra Gleason on Tuesday denied the United States’ bid for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented an emergency decision by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game from going into effect while its legality was being litigated.

The federal government, the judge found, had not provided any evidence that Alaska’s rural subsistence salmon harvesters will be irreparably harmed in the next few weeks unless she enters a temporary restraining order that immediately prohibits non-federally qualified subsistence gillnet fishing — which involves catching fish with floating, vertically oriented panels of netting — during those few weeks.

Notably, the judge said, the state allowed similar gillnet fishing for all Alaskans on the Kuskokwim last year, and the federal government had not presented evidence that the 2021 state action had harmed qualified subsistence users.

Both the federal and the state government regulate fishing on the Kuskokwim in the wildlife refuge. To protect the dwindling Chinook salmon population, the federal government both last year and this year closed the Kuskokwim for gillnet fishing within the wildlife refuge but allowed fishing on certain dates by qualified subsistence users: rural villagers, most of whom belong to tribes living in the area.

Alaska last year and again this year followed the federal government in closing the Kuskokwim for gillnet fishing but issued emergency orders that allowed all Alaskans to fish on the same days that the U.S. allowed federally qualified subsistence users to fish. Last year, the state went even further and allowed fishing on dates that the U.S. didn’t allow even qualified subsistence users to fish, according to the judge’s order.

“The state emergency orders in 2021 and 2022 authorizing fishing on the Kuskokwim River within the Refuge contradict and interfere with federal orders and conservation of resources,” the U.S. said in its May 17 complaint. “These orders have reduced subsistence opportunities for the rural Alaskans residing along the Kuskokwim River, contributed to conservation concerns for Chinook and chum salmon on the Kuskokwim River, and placed the United States at risk of litigation.”

In its opposition to the United States’ request for a temporary restraining order, Alaska said the dates it allows for subsistence fishing on the Kuskokwim in June target whitefish and not Chinook salmon.

According to the state, by extending subsistence fishing to all Alaskans, it’s seeking to benefit former residents of the region who have been displaced to urban areas for educational, social, health or other reasons, and there was no risk that large numbers of Alaskans would descend on the Kuskokwim.

“The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of subsistence fishers on the Kuskokwim are locals with setnets and knowledge of where to place them,” the state said. “The suggestion that hordes of urban fishers are going to descend on Bethel, obtain setnets, learn where to place them, transport the nets to the location, then fish them to catch whitefish and possibly a small number of salmon is pure fantasy.”

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