State appeals to U.S. Supreme Court to overturn salmon decision

In the midst of the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, the battle for state management of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries continues.

The State of Alaska has filed with the U.S. Supreme Court to review a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeal decision that would require some of Alaska’s salmon fisheries to conform to federal management.

The state says this is the wrong move.

“This is an area where the federal government recognizes the State’s expertise and agrees that the State is better equipped to manage the fishery, even in federal waters,” said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth in a press release Feb. 27. “We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will review this important issue and reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision.”

Last September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2011 decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to remove several Alaska salmon fisheries from the federal management plan.

Industry group United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, filed the lawsuit in 2013 to repeal the council’s decision, which was officially Amendment 12 to the Alaska salmon fishery management plan, or FMP. The amendment formally turned over control of salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula to state management.

The U.S. District Court for Alaska sided with the state and feds in dismissing the UCIDA lawsuit in 2014, but the 9th Circuit reversed the decision and found for the plaintiffs.

UCIDA’s leadership claimed that the state’s management does not conform to the federal national standards, and has resulted in the loss of harvestable salmon surplus worth millions to commercial fishermen in the region.

State officials disagreed with the decision’s wisdom. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game insists that the “state does not need the U.S. government’s help in salmon management.” NMFS officials have largely echoed the sentiment, not relishing the idea of crafting a new FMP for Cook Inlet fisheries.

The state’s petition to the Supreme Court case elaborates at length on Alaska’s salmon management, even going so far as to label federal management “inferior.”

The 9th Circuit Court did not properly understand the issue, it claims. Mostly, the State of Alaska fears overfishing as a result of the catch limits required in most federal fisheries — hard caps on how many fish the entire fishery can harvest.

“Because it can be difficult to forecast how many salmon will return in a given year, NMFS agrees that managing these fisheries with catch limits risks overfishing: sometimes the limits will turn out to be too high, and sometimes too low,” the appeal reads. “The State’s management method under state law is better. The State monitors salmon returns in-season, and by emergency order allows the level of fishing that will ensure that the appropriate number of salmon reach their spawning grounds to sustain the stock. NMFS agrees that the State manages these fisheries consistent with the National Standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is primary governing law for federal fisheries, which sets 10 National Standards every FMP must follow.

UCIDA President Dave Martin argues the state’s management fails entirely to achieve national standard one to achieve optimum yield while citizens are being crunched under a statewide recession.

“We’re not harvesting surplus, we’re getting way below maximum sustained yield returns. That’s not compliance,” said Martin. “With the way economic situation the state’s in now, you’d think on a renewable resource that they’d want to get the most return off of it and turn it into an economic benefit for the state.”

Not only does the state claim its management does this, but also that salmon stocks were in fact worse off under federal management.

“Before statehood, the Federal Government managed Alaska’s salmon fisheries using a strategy that, like annual catch limits, failed to account for the unpredictability of salmon returns,” the appeal reads. “The result was record low salmon harvests. Since the State took over management of its salmon fisheries, commercial salmon harvests have increased more than tenfold, and Alaska’s salmon fisheries are recognized as sustainable and among the best managed fisheries in the world. The court’s decision will return these three salmon fisheries to inferior federal management over the opposition of the experts at NMFS.”

Management, the state argues, should have an FMP only if the fishery itself has a conservation need.

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act obviously does not require an FMP for fisheries that will be worse off with an FMP than without one,” the appeal reads. “NMFS has long interpreted (the law) as requiring Councils to prepare FMPs only for fisheries that require the conservation and management measures that an FMP would provide.”

Martin responded by pointing to the low king salmon runs that have plagued Alaska over the last decade.

“A famed senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, developed these plans, and they’re world renowned for developing fisheries and rebuilding stocks,” Martin said. “It takes the politics out of it, and manages it according to the science and the biology. We named our airport after Stevens, we should be able to manage our fisheries to the plans he developed.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

02/28/2017 - 5:10pm