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Joaqlin Estus

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A federal judge has temporarily banned the state of Alaska from holding fish openings that conflict with federal openers on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska.

The state had been scheduling openings for all Alaskans on the same days the federal government limited openings to local rural subsistence users only. The state says it’s upholding the state Constitution, which reserves fish and wildlife for common use and prohibits exclusive or special hunting and fishing privileges.

District Judge Sharon L. Gleason said the state openings “create a practical risk that large numbers of Alaskans will arrive at the State-appointed times to set gill-nets on the Kuskokwim, resulting in unpredictable and extensive harvest of the depleted fisheries.”

The temporary injunction was issued on the grounds the state’s actions likely violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Under ANILCA, local rural subsistence users have priority to hunt and fish on federal land and waters in Alaska when restrictions are needed during fish and game shortages.

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Gleason cited federal assertions that the injunction is needed or irreparable harm will occur because “Kuskokwim Chinook and chum salmon populations are in decline, and face risk of overharvest.” The ban will be in effect until the court rules on the larger question of whether state or federal agencies have the right to decide who fishes in federal waters when fish numbers are low.

The Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission had intervened on the side of the federal government.

The lawsuit is part of a long-standing conflict between federal agencies and the state of Alaska over subsistence, which is the gathering of food from nature for nutrition and cultural practices.

Legislators at the state and Congressional levels have not remedied differences between the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Alaska Constitution.

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