Judge rules for the feds in a lawsuit against the state of Alaska over subsistence fishing rights

A persons arm is seen holding a salmon
Kuskokwim king salmon caught near Bethel on June 12, 2018. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The federal government has won a permanent injunction against the state of Alaska in a case important to subsistence fishing rights.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled Friday that state fisheries managers can’t allow salmon fishing on a long stretch of the Kuskokwim River if their orders conflict with federal management decisions aimed at protecting fish for subsistence use.

The dispute arose in 2021, a drastically low chinook salmon year. The Federal Subsistence Board and other federal officials sharply curtailed salmon fishing on 180 miles of the Kuskokwim, where it winds through the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta National Wildlife Refuge. They closed that section of river to non-subsistence harvests. They also limited subsistence fishing to local rural residents and imposed restrictions on when they could fish and what gear they could use. 

The state Department of Fish and Game issued an order allowing all Alaskans — not just federally qualified subsistence users — to engage in the limited harvest.

Nearly the same conflict arose again in 2022. The federal government, the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Alaska Federation of Natives, among others sued, asserting the subsistence fishing rights Congress established in a 1980 law. The case is called United States of America v. State of Alaska.

Judge Gleason issued a temporary injunction in 2022 blocking the state from issuing conflicting orders. Friday she made it permanent. The state’s conflicting fishing orders would hamper the U.S. government from enforcing the federal law protecting subsistence rights, she ruled, and federal law trumps state regulations. 

The state maintains it has authority over fishing on Alaska rivers, even where they flow through federal refuges. It says the Alaska Constitution requires it to manage fish for the benefit of all Alaskans.

If past subsistence cases are any guide, the state will appeal. Subsistence advocates have won a series of cases against the state that went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

Previous articleLots of ideas, but not much time, to address Cook Inlet gas crunch
Next articleKick off National Poetry Month with this classic poetry slam | State of Art