Attorneys argue scope of Metlakatla’s off-reservation fishing rights in federal court

Metlakatla Mayor Albert Smith exits the courtroom at the Robert Boochever U.S. Courthouse in Juneau, Alaska after oral arguments in a fishing rights case on Feb. 15, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

Attorneys presented oral arguments in a long-running dispute over fishing rights on Alaska’s only Native reservation on Thursday. Metlakatla Indian Community sued Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his administration in 2020, claiming the state’s fishing permit system infringes on rights guaranteed to the tribe by Congress.

Lawyers for the tribe argue that Metlakatla fishermen should not be required to purchase limited-entry permits to fish in waters near Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island. The tribe argues that the 1891 federal law that created Metlakatla’s reservation implicitly guarantees tribal members the right to fish outside its boundaries.

The state disagrees, arguing that allowing members to fish off-reservation without state permits would hamper efforts to manage fisheries sustainably.

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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Metlakatla and revived the case last year after it was dismissed in 2021, sending it back to district court. The appeals court tasked the lower court with determining the scope of the tribe’s right to fish outside the reservation’s boundaries. The Biden administration joined the case with a friend-of-the-court brief, siding with Metlakatla.

On Thursday, attorneys for the state argued in a Juneau federal courthouse that the Ninth Circuit’s decision required Metlakatla to prove that they had a history of fishing in the southern panhandle. 

Metlakatla’s attorneys told the judge, Sharon Gleason, that the state was attempting to relitigate an issue settled by the appeals court. A U.S. Department of Justice attorney said the federal government believed that Congress had indeed granted the tribe off-reservation fishing rights. Metlakatla’s attorney said that if the case proceeded to trial, he was prepared to present evidence of Metlakatla fishermen fishing in those areas.

In a statement, Alaska Assistant Attorney General Laura Wolff said the case involves many tough issues, adding that Gleason appears to understand the nuances. Metlakatla mayor Albert Smith said shortly after the hearing that he was pleased to see the case moving forward. A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. 

A decision is expected in the coming months.

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Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at

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