Cook Inlet fishermen wait for direction

Concerns heard regarding salmon FMP but no action taken

Concerned fishermen gathered at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s October meeting in Anchorage to discuss a recent federal court decision that turns control of salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula over to state management.

Though stakeholders brought their suggestions, the council did not direct its staff to any action related to the subject of a salmon FMP. Instead, the council reiterated that the decision will be remanded back to the lower court where it could either be appealed or produce a directive for the council to write a salmon FMP. 

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council governs federal fisheries, which take place from three to 200 miles offshore. In 2013, industry group United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, filed a lawsuit  to repeal a 2011 council decision, which became Amendment 12 to the Alaska salmon fishery management plan, or FMP. The initial suit was rejected by U.S. Alaska District Court Judge Timothy Burgess in September 2014. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously remanded the case back to Burgess with instructions to find in favor the plaintiffs.

Dave Martin, president of UCIDA, pressed for a committee of salmon stakeholders to help draft a salmon FMP. “I think it’ll work here as far as getting the plan developed, and the parties involved, we’d gladly be involved in this process. We need to have people on there that are sincere about the management plans,” said Martin.“In the interim, we’ll probably have to come up with something between now and next season.”

“We’d like to work with you to make sure there are no negative, unintended consequences of this decision,” said ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten in response.

Cotten insists the state doesn’t need federal guidelines for what is a fishery prosecuted mainly by Alaska fishermen. The state’s drift fishermen show little faith in the state’s ability to run the fishery.

“Over the past four years, there have been major fishery disasters declared in Alaska: Yukon & Kuskokwim Chinook, Cook Inlet Chinook as well as Prince William Sound, Lower Cook Inlet, Chignik and Kodiak Pinks,” wrote John McCombs, president of Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund, which co-filed the lawsuit with UCIDA.  “Collectively, the chinook and pink salmon disasters cover the majority of the state-managed fisheries. There is simply no justification for these systemic, state-wide salmon fishery disasters. The notion that the State of Alaska is doing a great job of managing salmon is hollow and is not supported by these reoccurring salmon run disasters.”

Cook Inlet fishermen unconnected to the lawsuit offered similar testimony.

Arni Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Salmon Alliance, agreed, and said the state needs federal guidelines to revive fisheries. “State management plans in Cook Inlet now result in only about two percent of pink salmon stocks being harvested, about six percent of chum salmon stocks being harvested and about 10 percent of coho stocks being harvested,” wrote Thompson in a letter of public comment. “Surplus Chinook and sockeye are harvested at a higher rate but there is an unharvested surplus of all stocks that could generate additional tens of millions of dollars annually to the regional and state economies.”

Others came before the council not for commercial fisheries purposes but for ecological concerns. Bob Shavelson, executive director of habitat conservation non profit Cook Inlet Keeper, used the opportunity to tell the council it could use a salmon FMP to protect the Cook Inlet watershed from the “death by a thousand cuts that’s resulted in the demise of fisheries in other places.”

“I think there’s wonderful opportunity for public engagement,” Shavelson said. “Where I see people coming together is around the issue of habitat. Without habitat you don’t have an allocation.”

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, requires all federal fisheries to follow a series of guidelines, called the National Standards. The council has to consider factors like best available science, the economic health of coastal communities, and a principle called maximum sustainable yield.

Several fisheries meetings at the state and federal level will take place between now and the beginning of the 2017 salmon season. If the North Pacific council decides not to appeal, it will need an operational FMP by the beginning of the 2017 salmon season and will likely need to collaborate with the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which manages fisheries within three miles off the Alaska shore.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

10/19/2016 - 2:32pm