Work continues on federal plan for Cook Inlet salmon

  • From left, former United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw, current UCIDA board President Dave Martin, Board of Fisheries member John Jensen and commercial drift fisherman Bruce Gabrys talk during a break in the meeting of the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting in 2014 at the Egan Center in Anchorage. UCIDA and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund successfully sued to overturn a 2012 decision by the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council to delegate salmon management in Cook Inlet to the State of Alaska. (Photo/Rashah McChesney/AJOC file)

More than two years after a court ruling ordered the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to develop a management plan for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery, a stakeholder group has made a first set of recommendations.

The council convened a Cook Inlet Salmon Committee last year composed of five stakeholders to meet and offer recommendations before the council officially amends the Fishery Management Plan, or FMP, for the drift gillnet salmon fishery in Upper Cook Inlet, which occurs partially in federal waters.

The committee presented a report with three main findings: first, that the fishery be managed cooperatively with the State of Alaska; second, that the committee schedule another meeting before the April 2019 council meeting; and third, that fishery participants be prohibited from retaining groundfish.

The council went into rewriting the FMP for Cook Inlet unwillingly. The whole battle began in 2012 when the council voted unanimously to pass Amendment 12 to the existing Cook Inlet FMP, which essentially delegated all management authority for the fishery to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, along with the management of two other salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula.

The Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the trade group for the drift gillnet fleet in the area, sued the National Marine Fisheries Service to restore the FMP to the fishery. After losing in the U.S. District Court of Alaska, the groups prevailed at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in fall 2016.

The ruling went back before the council in April 2017, at which point the council decided to move forward with developing an FMP for Cook Inlet first before dealing with the other two areas, whose trade representatives said the fishermen would prefer to remain under state management.

The UCIDA plaintiffs have long argued that the state’s management through escapement goals and allocations among sport, subsistence and commercial user groups has led to overly restrictive fishing regulations and left large numbers of salmon harvested beyond what’s necessary for biological escapement. The management plans are created by the Board of Fisheries and implemented by the Department of Fish and Game.

The groups expressed frustration at the state’s management regime, saying it violates the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s mandate to manage fisheries for the maximum sustainable yield by leading to foregone harvest and overescapement of salmon they argue reduces future returns.

Some of the committee members agreed with UCIDA about the use of escapement goals, according to the committee’s report to the council.

“Some members of the Committee objected to escapement based analyses in general and urged movement toward alternative methods, however, no scientifically viable alternative methods were identified,” the report states. “… There were comments about other environmental factors that could contribute to variation in numbers of recruits including diminishing habitat quantity and quality.”

In general, the state manages salmon fisheries in Alaska. In many areas, they occur primarily around rivers or near land, placing them in state waters — those waters within three nautical miles of shore.

Direct federal management of salmon fisheries, then, presents a number of thorny issues.

A primary hangup was a clause in the MSA referring to managing a fish stock “throughout its range” — in the case of salmon, that means inland harvest on rivers. Additionally, unlike groundfish, salmon reproduce in freshwater, which is within state jurisdiction inland. In this case, the FMP would apply to federal waters only, not extending inland.

During the committee meeting, the group pointed out that state and federal regulatory areas don’t align, either, so it would have to be clarified which catches were in federal waters and which were in state waters.

Additionally, monitoring for salmon runs is largely done with in-stream sonar or weir systems administered by ADFG. In Cook Inlet, ADFG also operates an offshore test fishery near Anchor Point that measures abundance of salmon running into the inlet in the summer.

The federal government managers would rely on that data, given that no other data measures are established for abundance, unlike the regular surveys done for other kinds of groundfish. In many federal fisheries, as well, observer coverage is required, which would be tricky and burdensome for many of the small boat fishermen that fish in the Upper Cook Inlet drift fishery.

Some difficulty also lies ahead in determining a method for stock status determination for the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery, which is a mixed-stock fishery. Salmon stocks don’t work the same as many groundfish species, so determining harvest thresholds, stock status and other federal fishery guidelines will require some discussion, the report notes.

The committee agreed to recommend that the council pursue cooperative management with the state, but plans to look into other options for recommendations, according to the report.

“Some of these approaches may include indexes, CPUE (catch per unit effort), and historic catch,” the report states. “There was also interest in Committee review of Pacific Council management approaches for salmon.”

To avoid additional permit complication and because the drift fishery is relatively “clean” — meaning the nets in general don’t catch many groundfish, which are the other federal managed finfish species in Cook Inlet — the committee agreed to also recommend prohibiting groundfish harvest in the fishery and to use eLandings, an electronic catch reporting tool.

The council passed a motion noting the committee should meet again before the April 2019 council meeting, making recommendation on “appropriate recordkeeping and reporting requirements, standardized bycatch reporting methodologies, and to further develop its recommendations on status determination criteria at its next meeting.”

UCIDA itself is not happy with the committee process. In a public comment submitted to the council on the topic, UCIDA President David Martin wrote that the committee’s membership is not structured the way UCIDA has been requesting for years, excluding the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund entirely, and has been handed a “truncated” task that will not be meaningful.

“UCIDA had hoped that the Salmon Committee might be a step in the right direction toward addressing the underlying problems in the fishery,” Martin wrote. “But the narrow task of the Committee and its limited composition preclude that result. UCIDA will participate in the Committee proceedings, but it does so with these fundamental objections clearly stated.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/27/2018 - 9:41am

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