Metlakatla appeals to Ninth Circuit in fishing rights case against Dunleavy administration

A 32-foot gilnetter sails in blue waters next to green spruce-covered mountains.
The 32-foot gillnetter F/V Deja Vu sails on Aug. 3 near Metlakatla. Metlakatla’s tribal government recently sued Gov. Mike Dunleavy over the tribe’s right to fish in waters outside the boundaries of the state’s only Native reservation. (Johon Atkinson)

Metlakatla Indian Community is appealing a federal judge’s dismissal of a fishing rights case against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his administration. Lawyers for the tribe filed the appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday.

Lawyers argue Metlakatla tribal members shouldn’t need state permits to fish in waters within a day’s travel of the community at the southern tip of the Southeast panhandle. When Congress created the Annette Islands Reserve in 1891 as the tribe’s permanent self-sustaining home, Metlakatla’s attorneys say lawmakers implicitly granted tribal members the right to fish in nearby waters — even outside the reserve’s boundaries.

The tribe asked the court to stop the state from enforcing commercial fishing regulations on tribal members.

But U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick sided with attorneys for the state, who argued Congress did not intend to grant the tribe off-reservation fishing rights. Sedwick cited the language of the 1891 law and congressional debate surrounding the measure.

Sedwick also pointed to the tribe’s unique history: Metlakatla was founded in 1887, when around 800 Tsimshian people fled their previous home in Canada. The longtime federal judge contrasted that with the circumstances of many Lower 48 tribes who were forcefully relocated or negotiated treaties to relinquish land claims.

Metlakatla’s attorneys are due to submit their opening brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by May 10. The state’s answer is due June 9.

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