Suspicious of being targeted by state law enforcement, Russian Old Believers who fish in Bristol Bay met with state officials in December to discuss their concerns. The result is a belief their concerns were heard, a commitment from the state to address future concerns and plans for a follow-up meeting between fishermen and law enforcement before the start of the 2014 Bristol Bay season.
“They gave us their personal word that if something happens, to let them know and they will personally look into it,” Fred Kalugin, spokesperson for the fishermen, told the Homer News. “People are pretty happy that the commissioner personally said if something happens, to let him know. Not to delay it or let it escalate into a worse problem.”
Organized to Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, the meeting was held at the Homer Legislative Information Office, with standing room only for the estimated 30 fishermen eager to ensure their comments were heard and to listen to Keith Mallard, acting commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, and James Cockrell, director of the Alaska Division of Public Safety Alaska Wildlife Troopers. Also attending was Bob Doehl, special assistant to Sen. Mark Begich.
A sense of being discriminated against had been building among Russian Old Believer fishermen for several years. It came to a head with an anonymously made 2013 video allegedly showing Alaska State Troopers videotaping fishing boats along the north line of Bristol Bay’s Ugashik District.
From it, Basargin said it was “obvious that the troopers were targeting us ‘Russian’ boats.” He also pointed to the 2009 season in the same area where a Russian Old Believer boat made a set within the district boundaries, but troopers insisted the boat and gear were outside the district and then allowed a “non-Russian” boat to move into the spot the “Russian” boat had occupied.
“That’s when we really got disappointed, but we’ve been noticing for the past couple of years more and more harassment that we felt by the Fish and Wildlife Troopers in Bristol Bay,” said Kalugin. “It got to the point that we decided, instead of it escalating and getting worse, we would do something about it and make higher people aware of it and maybe stop it sooner, rather than later.”
An exchange of letters and phone calls with Gov. Sean Parnell and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich’s offices and the online posting of the video led to Seaton calling for the meeting.
“He brought to the table the need to get together and have a group of Russian fishermen meet with Public Safety prior to the fishing,” said Louie Flora, an aide to Seaton.
According to statistics provided by Cockrell, of the 200 citations issued in Bristol Bay during 2013, only six were from the group of fishermen represented at the Homer meeting.
“That’s less than 3 percent,” said Mallard. “It didn’t really support their point of view, but people’s perspective oftentimes is their reality, so we wanted to sit down and hear what their concerns were.”
Mallard said Public Safety personnel serve as “referees” during the Bristol Bay season to ensure “everyone has fair access to the resource. That’s the weekend fishermen trying to make a few dollars. That’s the professional fishermen, like this group. And that’s the subsistence fishermen out there trying to feed their families. … We don’t take sides and we don’t enforce the laws based on race, color or any of that. If there’s a violation, we’ll enforce it.”
Infractions of the law and the resulting citations aren’t an issue to the fishermen, however.
“If we cross the line we’ll certainly pay,” said Kalugin. “We’re not fighting the fines. We just want to be treated the same.”
Also at issue was the state’s lack of awareness of Russian Old Believers’ holy days on which the fishermen do not work. That includes fishing.
“Being approached by a trooper created a shouting and argumentative situation in Naknek where Russian Old Believers were sitting out the period because they don’t work on certain days,” said Flora.
While Bristol Bay isn’t the only fishery in Alaska, it requires Alaska Wildlife Troopers’ largest response during the fishing season to ensure fishing regulations are adhered to. Troopers also participate in search and rescue efforts in the bay.
“We’re involved in every aspect of that fishery. It’s a highly scrutinized fleet, “ said Cockrell.
“There is a special prosecutor that works with the department of the Attorney General that takes our cases and scrutinizes them, making sure we’re following guidelines. There’s a magistrate that visits King Salmon from Anchorage and also scrutinizes the cases. And our supervisors scrutinize the cases,” said Cockrell. “There are several levels of referrals or checks and balances to make sure we’re providing the services fishermen deserve out there. The bottom line is we’re trying to protect everybody’s opportunity to fish out there and fish legal in order to make a living.”
In addition to a pre-season meeting between fishermen and law enforcement, Mallard said the Russian Old Believer fishermen requested a greater Public Safety presence in Bristol Bay “because they recognize that when the state Wildlife Troopers are out there, fishing isn’t as aggressive.”
Not only was the meeting important to the fishermen, it also “was important for us to go down to Homer,” said Cockrell. “We were glad to see the turnout. Rep. Seaton did a good job of hosting the meeting and keeping it going and on point.”
Kalugin said the fishermen look forward to working with the state in the upcoming season.
“If they’re willing to work it out, we’re not going to stand in the way of working it out,” said Kalugin. “That’s what we’re pushing for, to work it out.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com.