Judge said lawsuit was “asking courts to direct management of fisheries”
BY: JAMES BROOKS at Alaska Beacon, April 14, 2023
A Superior Court judge in Bethel has dismissed a lawsuit accusing state officials of unconstitutionally mismanaging Yukon River and Kuskokwim River salmon fisheries, leading to a crisis on those rivers.
Judge Nathaniel Peters, an appointee of Gov. Bill Walker, said in a 16-page ruling on Thursday that plaintiff Eric Forrer failed “to identify any specific policy or action on the part of the Board (of Fisheries) or Commissioner (of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) that could in any way be viewed as a violation of the sustained yield principle.”
That principle requires the state to manage its resources sustainably, and Forrer — represented by Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof — had argued that salmon declines in Western and Interior Alaska were evidence that the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation.
Peters further concluded that Forrer, a Juneau resident, was asking the courts to direct the management of fisheries.
“The Alaska Constitution has delegated the management of this State’s natural resources to the legislature, not the judiciary,” Peters said.
Geldhof said during courtroom arguments last month that he intended to appeal any unfavorable decision to the Alaska Supreme Court. He did not immediately respond to a text message seeking confirmation of that intent.
In a prepared written statement, the Alaska Department of Law noted that Peters concluded that the state “engaged in reasoned decision-making” when considering the fisheries.
“The state’s inseason management, area management plans, and statewide regulations reflect the department’s world-renowned science-based fisheries management,” said Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang in the statement. “Over the last two years, the Yukon and Kuskokwim fisheries have faced historically low salmon runs and the department has managed the fisheries to preserve the stocks in the face of this crisis.”
From the Alaska Marine Ecosystems Reports:
In 2019 and 2020 combined, approximately 28,300 immature Chinook salmon from Western Alaska (Yukon and Coastal Western Alaska regions) were caught as bycatch. The estimated impact rate of bycatch to combined Western Alaska Chinook salmon stocks averaged 1.9% for the 2011-2021 runs or annual estimates of 6,331-10,614 fewer spawners to Western Alaska. The impact rate for the 2022 run is not yet available, but is expected to be higher based on low run sizes in 2022 (i.e., impact rate is inversely related to run size).