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Judge rules DEC had jurisdiction over St. Lawrence River fisherman

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County Judge Jerome J. Richards has ruled that a state Department of Environmental Conservation officer had proper jurisdiction when he charged a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe with possessing walleye out of season in a territorially disputed section of the St. Lawrence River.

Roger T. Thomas was convicted of possessing the fish following a bench trial before Justice James M. Crandall in Massena Town Court. Mr. Thomas appealed the decision, maintaining among other things that a 200-year-old treaty granted tribe members the right to fish waters within the Mohawk reservation without being subject to state hunting or fishing regulations.

Mr. Thomas was fishing a section of the river near Snell Lock and the mouth of the Grasse River in April 2011, although the exact location was never pinpointed on the trial record, according to Judge Richards’s ruling entered Wednesday. A DEC officer, Troy E. Basford, was on a boat patrol when he encountered Mr. Thomas, who showed him four fish he had caught. Two of the fish were walleyes, the season for which was not scheduled to open for three more days, and Mr. Thomas was ticketed.

According to Judge Richards’s ruling, Mr. Thomas told the officer he was on tribal land and he did not believe state conservation laws applied to him there. In his appeal, Mr. Thomas offered portions of a 1796 treaty that granted tribe members hunting and fishing rights on certain lands, although the geographical areas covered by the treaty are still in dispute in federal land claim litigation.

Despite not having a precise location of where Mr. Thomas was fishing, Judge Richards was able to review the treaty and found that “it makes no mention of fishing rights and speaks of reserving the right to mills and meadows at the conjunction of the Grasse River.”

He subsequently ruled that the lower court correctly found that Mr. Thomas did not establish that there was a treaty right allowing him to fish unregulated in the area he was fishing or that he was, in fact, fishing on the reservation. The judge also ruled that Mr. Thomas did not establish that DEC did not have jurisdiction over him at the spot where he was encountered.

Judge Richards’s decision has been submitted for possible publication to the state Law Reporting Bureau, which provides a legal reference for jurists and attorneys facing similar cases.

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