US judge sides with federal government over Alaskan fishing regulation

A photo of the Kuskokwim River
The Kuskokwim River | Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Samoli
4 Min

A federal judge has ruled in favor of the Biden administration and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in their dispute with the state of Alaska over Kuskokwim River fishing regulations.

The two governments have been engaged in a multi-year dispute over fishing along the river, with the federal government attempting to limit activity to subsistance fishing and the state government opening fishing to all Alaskan residents. In May 2022, the Biden administration filed an injunction blocking Alaska’s move. The state responded by filing its own motion in September 2023 in the U.S. District Court in Alaska, rejecting federal control of the region.

On 29 March 2024, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason issued a permanent injunction against the state of Alaska, backing the federal government’s claims that its regulatory authority superceded the state’s.

“This ruling is a victory for the people of Western Alaska and the Kuskokwim River, and the Fish Commission is encouraged to see that the voice of the local people was upheld by the court,” Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chair Jonathan Samuelson said in a statement. “Our long-time concerns of sustainable stewardship, cultural vitality, and food security are still present, and there is much more work to be done in regard to equitable management. We will take this moment to catch our breath and celebrate before continuing the hard work of our people and salmon relatives.”

The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) also praised the court’s ruling, denouncing Alaska’s actions as an “attack on federally protected subsistence rights” in a statement.

“The Court has rejected the state’s case and essentially prevented the state from filing similar cases in the future,” AVCP CEO Vivian Korthuis said in a statement. “This case ... is a blatant attack on the subsistence rights of Alaska Native. AVCP is committed to defending our traditional waters, our communities, and our ways of life. We are resilient and will continue to fight for our families and communities.”

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said the state plans to appeal the ruling.

"Although we just received the ruling and have not yet reviewed it fully, we are disappointed that the court did not recognize the clear conflict between the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case and the federal actions here, but it is also not surprising,” Taylor said on social media. “We were always expecting this case to go up to the highest court in order to get a final decision. The state plans to appeal.”

In September 2023, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy elaborated on the state’s position.

“If this federal overreach is allowed to stand, it opens the door to the state losing its right to manage Alaska fisheries on significant waterways beyond the Kuskokwim, including the Yukon and Copper rivers,” Dunleavy said. “Not only was fisheries management a right granted at statehood, but sustainably managing our fisheries is a principle enshrined in the Alaska Constitution. The Biden administration has been growing more and more aggressive in its efforts to take over state management of our resources, and we have essentially been backed into a corner. Alaska has no choice but to fight for its rights and its citizens.”

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