Alaska Wildlife Troopers summoned 15 subsistence fishermen to the Bethel courthouse on Monday for fishing violations. One fishermen did not appear. The rest pled no contest to minor offenses issued around the Kuskokwim set net opening on June 8.
Troopers charged most of the fishermen for using too long of a net. The opening allowed a 60-foot long net, and troopers cited most of the fishermen for using nets more than twice that length. The court charged these fishermen with a minor violation and a $300 fine. Some fishermen said that they were unaware of the regulations. One said that he neglected to measure his net. Another fishermen said that if he had known of the 60-foot limit, then he would never have put out a net.
The rest of the fishermen who appeared in court were also charged with minor violations for various offenses. Troopers charged four fishermen for fishing during a closed period. Troopers charged one fisherman for drifting during a set net opening and using too large of mesh. The court charged these fishermen $300 and a one-year probation on fish and game violations. If these fishermen violate their probation, they will have to pay an additional $100.
Troopers had returned most of the fishermen’s nets within one to three days of confiscation, and are working to return the remaining nets to their owners.
Alaska Wildlife Trooper Walter Blajeski issued many of the citations during the June 8 set net opening. He participated in the court proceedings and talked with KYUK after the arraignments.
Trooper Blajeski: You know the 15 citations that were issued and addressed in court today, there were a lot of man hours on the river by the troopers on the 8th and before the 8th; before the opener and after the opener. And to have that few of citations, I think, is a better way to look at it than that many citations. There was a lot of fishermen out there doing the right thing, and that's really what we're excited about is that voluntary compliance.
KYUK: The 15 fishermen were each asked to pay a fine of $300 for these minor violations. Why $300?
Trooper Blajeski: The maximum fine for these violations was $500. After consultation with the District Attorney's office, we didn't request the maximum fine. This is a subsistence fishery in rural Alaska, in Western Alaska. Three hundred dollars is a significant amount of money, and we thought that was appropriate to the violation.
KYUK: Most of the defendants who appeared in court, their nets had already been returned. Many of them had been returned within one to three days. Is it a priority for the troopers to return the nets quickly?
Trooper Blajeski: Not typically. Typically when we seize property as evidence, we retain it until court is done. This is a subsistence fishery with a very short window that these salmon are in the river around these local villages. So with discussions with our department, the decision was made to try to get these nets that we could identify who the owner was back to them, so they could continue to subsistence fish. It's pretty important in the region. It's not a sport fish fishery or commercial fishery. These people are subsistence fishing, and we thought it best to try to return these nets that would otherwise be legal so they can continue their opportunities to subsistence fish.
KYUK: When a net is confiscated, what happens to it? Where does it go, and how is it handled?
Trooper Blajeski: So all the nets that we seized as evidence on the opener of June 8th, we took back to the trooper post in Bethel. We had staff lay them out on the ground, dried them, measured them. So we could get a very accurate measurement of the actual length of the net, because when we're measuring them in the field, there's all kinds of environmental factors that we get a close measurement, but it's not laid out on a flat piece of concrete with a tape measure. We want to measure them for accuracy, so we can speak intelligently and factually in court about it. After we've dried it, measured it, we package them up, and we tag them with people's name on it. The decision on this fishery was made to try to return those. And so we we went through a great deal of effort to bring those nets back to those people. Some of them that were close to Bethel came by boat. Some of them that lived in Bethel either picked them up from the office or we delivered them to them by pickup. And the nets that we seized in the outlying areas who we could identify and contact, we actually flew those back out to them during patrols.
KYUK: When a net is confiscated, the fish in that net and the fish on board is also confiscated. What then happens to that fish?
Trooper Blajeski: So when we seize nets for evidence, if there's a violation, they can't legally possess those fish. And so we take those fish, document it in our notes and our report, and then we'll find a charity. We call it a charity, but it's usually an established place that has a need for fish and game to help supplement their operation. This year we started off with the Tundra Women's Coalition. They received a lot of the first part of the season fish. They told us they had enough. So then there was an at-risk youth fish camp on Church Slough. Their staff told us that they could have the kids process the fish and then deliver it to Elders or to Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation facilities. When we couldn't get a hold of anybody in Bethel because of the late hour, we we went down to the boat harbor and other places and tried to find families that could use a fish or two. When we seize fish a long way from Bethel, we look for local regional charities there. And that could be going to the local village and asking, "What Elder could use a couple fish, or what family could use a couple of fish?" Pretty standard stuff in our job to give seized game meat and seized fish to people in need. And I think that we've been doing a real good job getting that out to people that can effectively process it and get it to people that need it.
KYUK: Minors not wearing life jackets has also been an issue this fishing season. Will you explain the regulations around life jackets in Alaska?
Trooper Blajeski: Yes. So especially in Western Alaska, we have a lot of boating activity, and we have a lot of, unfortunately, fatalities in the water. If you're under the age of 13 years, you need to have a life jacket on when you're in a boat, when you're in an open boat or on deck when it's being operated. The law is pretty clear on that. If you're older than 13, there needs to be a life jacket of sufficient size for each person on board. So if you have three adults, you can't have three children lifejackets and vice versa. We look for that. We give a lot of education on that when we talk to boaters. Usually we'll cite for one offence and give warnings on the secondary ones out here. We hand out a lot of "Kids Don't Float" life jackets when we have them. And if you go to any of the boat harbors around the villages, or any of the beaches around the villages, you'll see life jackets hanging by the water. There's really no excuse not to have a life jacket in Western Alaska.
KYUK: Anything else you'd like to add?
Trooper Blajeski: We've had a couple openers since the first one. In my observations, I'm really excited to see that a lot of people out there are trying to do the right thing. And their fishing equipment is squared away, and their life jackets are squared away. I think we get focused on the citations, but really that's a very small percentage of the people that I contact. A majority of people that I contact are doing it right, and I'm really excited about that, that we have that type of awareness out here.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.