Council committee struggles with federal Cook Inlet salmon plan
Two-and-a-half years after a federal court directed the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to develop a fishery management plan for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery, there is still a lot of work to do.
The commercial salmon fisheries of Alaska are primarily managed by the state, including in Cook Inlet, where part of the fishery takes place in federal waters. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council for years deferred management of the salmon fishery there to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, finally removing Cook Inlet completely from its FMP in 2012.
The United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund sued, saying the federal government had a responsibility to manage that fishery to ensure it complies with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. In 2016, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the council reluctantly turned back to developing a management plan.
Many of the commercial fishermen there have a longstanding dissatisfaction with the Alaska Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries, stemming from a belief that the department’s allocation decisions governed by the board are politically rather than scientifically motivated and that the escapement goals for sockeye salmon on the Kenai River are too high.
They sought to exercise federal influence over state management through the lawsuit, and now are running into roadblocks on federal authority to do so.
The Cook Inlet Salmon Committee, which the council convened to gather stakeholder feedback on developing the FMP, has been hung up on philosophical differences at meetings.
Council staff Jim Armstrong, who serves as the plan coordinator for the Cook Inlet salmon FMP, told the council during its meeting on April 7 that there are still some major points of disagreement between the stakeholder council members, the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee and the council staff.
“There’s a lot of frustration and they have perspectives on the way that these salmon fisheries should be managed and how escapement goals are set and the biological impacts of spawning stock reaching the carrying capacity, and they feel it has,” he said. “That’s the theme that has woven through my report and experience of these meetings. We’re not just going in there with an agenda and checking boxes. They’ve come in with a certain plan and we’re trying to reconcile that with what’s possible under the federal system and the council process. It’s taking some time.”
One of the core tenets of the fishermen’s grievances is the belief that ADFG’s sockeye salmon escapement goals on the Kenai are too large, exceeding the carrying capacity of the system and thus reducing the overall return of fish as well as commercial harvests and therefore not delivering the required maximum sustainable yield.
The committee requested a scientific analysis of how different stock-recruitment models fit the Kenai River and at what level the river could be considered overcompensated — essentially, how many sockeye salmon it would take for the stock to begin crashing rather than producing more fish. Dr. Curry Cunningham of the Fisheries, Aquatic Science and Technology Laboratory at Alaska Pacific University developed the analysis.
The Kenai River is the largest sockeye salmon-producing system in Cook Inlet, replete with large lakes and gravel bottoms for sockeye spawning and rearing. Cunningham’s results concluded that an escapement of between 1.03 and 1.78 million sockeye would achieve a maximum sustainable yield of 2.97 million to 3.55 million sockeye on the Kenai River.
After looking at multiple models, he found that the model that best fit the data from the river — called a Beverton-Holt relationship — offered limited support for overcompensation in the river.
“Given that a Beverton-Holt function does not provide for overcompensation, this indicates limited evidence for the overcompensation hypothesis with respect to the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon stock,” he wrote.
This is not necessarily the same case for the Kasilof River, a separate but nearby stock. Upper Cook Inlet fishermen harvest both stocks of sockeye, and while the Kasilof River produces fewer sockeye, it is important to the commercial fishery and sustains a sportfishery of its own.
Fitting a model to the data on the Kasilof, Cunningham wrote that the model does not confirm that the Kasilof is overcompensating, but that it can’t be rejected. His results suggested a maximum sustained yield of 629,000 sockeye for an escapement of 235,000 on the Kasilof.
Cunningham’s findings about the Kenai River generally agree with ADFG’s calculations about escapement on the river. In a memo released March 26 detailing proposed escapement goal changes for Upper Cook Inlet, department staff indicated that results based on the traditional Ricker model indicate that the current escapement goal is too low and recommended raising the goal by 50,000 sockeye on the lower end and by 1 million on the upper end.
Fish and Game noted that the data the department has doesn’t conclude anything about overcompensation but noted that escapements after 1979 are more consistent than those between 1968 and 1978, and so excluded the earlier years in model estimations.
Using data from years 1979 to 2012, a goal that would produce 90 percent of maximum sustainable yield would be between 774,000 and 1.7 million sockeye, according to the escapement goal memo.
The committee members have repeatedly said they wanted the federal government to influence the state’s escapement goal development, Armstrong said.
“This was framed as a fundamental question, as in if this can’t happen, what’s the point of this whole exercise?” he said. “That’s not a committee statement, that’s just a flavor (of the discussion).”
The state has jurisdiction over inland waters and out to three nautical miles from shore. The court decision doesn’t give the federal fisheries managers rights to manage inside the state waters, nor does it allow them to overrule state management of fish in those waters.
That is another fundamental disagreement between the stakeholders and the council, Armstrong said; some members of the committee believe the federal government should extend its management into the freshwater salmon habitat.
Some council members expressed frustration at the delay in the work so far. Council member Bill Tweit of Washington noted in his comments that the council has specific rules under federal law.
“I think the more time the committee spends debating those kinds of issues, the longer this process is going to take and the longer it’s going to take to actually develop an FMP,” he said. “If the committee members want a salmon FMP, they’d be well advised to play within the boundaries of the ballfield that is the Magnuson-Stevens Act. None of us get to play outside those boundaries.”
Committee member Hannah Heimbuch, who commercially fishes in Cook Inlet, told the council that there is still significant confusion among stakeholders about the council process, as the state management process is more familiar to them.
“Some are fairly hopeless and think federal management is the only way to manage the fishery,” Heimbuch said. “Some are understandably frustrated that we even went down this road. And some are very confused … That all with a 40-year low harvest (of salmon in 2018). I think understandably there is a lot of emotion and tension. For me that meant selling my boat last week and leasing this year.
“To the extent that the council would be able to do any community outreach that communicates that beyond the scope of the committee, I think that would be helpful.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].