Supreme Court refuses to hear case of Metlakatla fisherman challenging state fishing regulations
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene Monday in a case involving Alaska’s power to regulate fishing near Annette Island. The legal fight centered on a Metlakatla man accused of illegally fishing in waters just outside the state’s only native reservation. But that’s not the end of the tribe’s legal efforts to exempt its fishermen from state regulations.
Metlakatla tribesman John Scudero Jr. was fishing for coho salmon near his home on Annette Island, south of Ketchikan. He says his memories remain as clear today as they were eight years ago when he was arrested.
“I was picked up by the Coast Guard, because I was supposedly outside our borders,” Scudero said in a phone interview Monday.
He was charged with illegal fishing – Scudero did not have a license to fish in state waters outside the boundaries of Alaska’s only Native reservation. He was convicted and fined $20,000.
Scudero took his case to the Alaska Supreme Court. He argued that the state had no power to prevent him from fishing in his tribe’s traditional territory. This is part of a long-standing dispute between members of the Metlakatla tribe and state authorities.
Members of the Metlakatla Indian community, like Scudero, argue that the 1891 law that created the Annette Islands Reservation guaranteed the tribe a self-sufficient home – and that the tribe cannot sustain itself without fishing in areas near Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island outside the reserve boundaries.
“We have been a fishing tribe for 120 years and we continue to fish,” Scudero said.
He says the citizens of Metlakatla never surrendered the rights guaranteed by the 19th century law creating the reservation.
Matthew Fletcher, a law professor at Michigan State University, is following Scudero’s case. He is an expert in indigenous legal affairs in the United States.
“It’s not surprising at all. It’s disappointing because I think the Alaska Supreme Court did a particularly superficial job analyzing the arguments in this case, including the preservative necessity principle,” Fletcher said by phone Monday.
It is a principle that states can regulate tribal hunting and fishing with the aim of preserving fish or game for future generations.
“It’s a very high bar. No one – no state has ever encountered it before. And the Alaska Supreme Court just said that the State of Alaska has an interest in maintaining the resource, and that’s enough,” he said.
But Fletcher says Scudero’s case is far from having the final say. The tribe itself, Metlakatla Indian Community, has a similar case pending in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This case challenges the state’s right to regulate tribal members’ fishing off the reservation.
“I would say, generally speaking, it’s a much better way to look at these questions,” Fletcher said.
State prosecutors argued late last year that keeping members of the Metlakatla tribe in the state fishing license system was key to maintaining sustainable migrations of wild salmon.
Fletcher says this case could have far-reaching implications for the Alaskan and West Coast tribes under the court’s jurisdiction. This could give states more power to regulate Indigenous hunting and fishing rights or offer stricter protections for traditional harvesting.
Reflecting on the high court’s refusal to take up his case, Scudero says he will monitor the appeal court’s decision in his tribe’s case. He says it’s about getting the U.S. Congress to uphold the law it passed more than a century ago.
“I just want everyone to know, I’m just a messenger. The rights are already there, whether the state or the government of the United States wants to respect what they wrote,” Scudero said. “Otherwise, their word means nothing.”
A decision in the tribe’s Ninth Circuit case is expected later this year.