This week, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi signed a final $33.5 million judgment against the state in a class action lawsuit that originated with a case filed in 1984.
It became known as the Carlson case, after one of the first plaintiffs, Don Carlson, who bought non-resident permits for fishing at a rate that was triple what an Alaskan fishermen would pay.
The courts sided with Carlson and others who joined the case that those fees were too high. The state was ordered to refund some of the fees -- but the litigation dragged out, because the state appealed the case five times in the Alaska Supreme Court.
Lance Nelson, Senior Assistant Attorney General, says the litigation led to new policies.
“It was literally the first of its kind in the United States, deciding how much a state could charge as a differential for non-residents in commercial fishing,” said Nelson. “So it literally took four decisions from the Alaska Supreme Court before the parties knew what the rules were.”
In those earlier decisions, the high court ruled that it was OK for the state to charge higher rates for non-resident fishermen, but that the state had to show those rates were tied to the actual costs of managing and protecting the fishery.
Bruce Gabrys, a past president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, says the state should have reevaluated its pricing policies much earlier than it did and not force the fishermen to go to court.
“Why should this drag on for 28 years?” said Gabris, “I’m glad it’s finally resolved. It cost the fishermen a lot of money.”
The list of fishermen set to receive payments (PDF) could receive from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, including interest.
Gabrys, who is an Alaskan and lives in Eagle River, says it was unfair to discriminate against out-of-state fishermen.
“It was a sense of fairness and equity between in-state and out-of-state fishermen,” said Gabrys. “We all fish alongside each other. I think both are important to Alaska’s economy.”
Gabrys says fishermen, as well as other seasonal workers in Alaska, tend to move back and forth between the state.
“Even those who are not residents, they still spend a lot of money on the state as they work on their boats and spend the summers here.” says Gabrys.
Gabrys says he’s glad the case is close to being resolved, because it will free up state resources to devote to other issues.
“It was well worth it for the state to pursue the litigation, even though it took so long,” says Nelson, who has worked on the case for four years.
Nelson says over the course of the litigation, interest payments were lowered -- and in the end, the state saved almost $50 million dollars by continuing to fight.
Even so, the cost of interest is high. In the recent $33.5 dollar million judgement, almost $18 million of that is interest. It also includes more than $3 million in attorneys fees.
Nelson says there will be one final court hearing in October to give the fishermen one more chance to weigh in on the judgment. The state does not plan on another appeal.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct information about the range of payouts to fishermen. Links have also been added.
Email Rhonda McBride