North Pacific council votes to close Cook Inlet federal waters to salmon

  • The red area representing the federal waters of Cook Inlet was closed to salmon fishing in a vote by the North Pacific Fishery Manangement Council on Dec. 7.

Commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet is facing a dismal future after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to close a major swath of the central inlet this week.

The council moved to enact Alternative 4 of a proposed Fishery Management Plan for Cook Inlet, closing the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, in that area.

Fishermen would still be able to operate in state waters, including the shoreline and up to three nautical miles offshore, but the EEZ would be closed to all gear types. According to council analysis, about 20 percent of the total salmon caught in Cook Inlet come from that area, and a little less than half of the total drift fleet salmon catch.

The proposed FMP still has to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, but the council members say their hands are essentially tied because the state says it won’t participate in co-management of the fishery. The council members were under a deadline to pass something by the end of the year.

In 2012, the council passed an amendment to the Cook Inlet fishery management plan, or FMP, that officially delegated management to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But the United Cook Inlet Drift Association was not happy with state management, saying the state has failed to manage for maximum sustained yield to the commercial fishery and sued to seek federal oversight over the EEZ in the Inlet again. In 2015, the 9th Circuit Court agreed with UCIDA, and the council took up the issue of the Cook Inlet FMP again.

Over the next four years, a stakeholder group and representatives from the council and the state participated in an FMP development process with the council members, hashing out potential ways to satisfy the court order to develop an FMP. The council finally arrived at four alternatives by the end of the October meeting: provide no management, cooperative state and federal management, complete federal management, or close the EEZ entirely.

The fourth option, to close the EEZ, was not in play as a separate alternative until the end of the October meeting. After it came out as an option, hundreds of fishermen vocally objected, flooding the council with comments opposing the alternative. The majority of the public commenters and industry stakeholders preferred Alternative 2, which would have provided cooperative state and federal management.

“We are intentionally being managed out of business, but we’re unable to defend ourselves against the agenda of our powerful state leaders, their appointed Board of Fish members, their Department of Fish and Game, and the powerful special interest groups that influence them,” said Matt Pancratz, a commercial drifter and resident of Nikolaevsk, a small Russian Old Believer village on the lower Kenai Peninsula. “We feel betrayed and powerless.”

UCIDA, the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the FMP rewrite process, didn’t like any of the options provided. David Martin, the president of the association, told the council the group believes none of the alternatives provided would satisfy the court’s order and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The missing piece hinges on Magnuson-Steven Act language about managing harvest of fish species “throughout their range.” UCIDA has argued that this language, in combination with the court’s decision, means the council should have authority to oversee state escapement goals and salmon management. Erik Huebsch, one of UCIDA’s vice presidents, blamed the state administration for failing to manage salmon in the Inlet.

“What you all need to realize is that the state of Alaska’s management system for salmon is totally corrupted, and that it has been for quite some time,” Huebsch said. “There is no other way to describe it. Some of you on the council have witnessed that firsthand. The late introduction of Alternative 4 is a punitive action by the state because their corrupt behavior is being exposed, and they want to continue their malpractice with impunity.”

Salmon management has largely been deferred to the state, in part because the species is managed by escapement goals in the rivers, which are in state jurisdiction. That’s true of Cook Inlet as well, where the predominant species in the commercial fishery — particularly in the upper Inlet — is salmon.

ADFG manages salmon returns to a variety of rivers and oversees subsistence, sport, commercial, and personal use fisheries throughout the basin. That’s gotten more complicated over the past few decades as the populations of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Mat-Su Valley have grown, personal-use fisheries have been established, and sportfisheries have become major economic drivers for tourism.

During the council FMP process, ADFG said the collaborative process provided under Alternative 2 would be too costly and have no benefit to the state. ADFG Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker told the council that the department would not agree to work together on management in that structure.

“The conditions required under Alternative 2 that we talked about for delegated management authority to the state … those conditions are unacceptable in terms of our ability to participate in that process, and particularly the federal oversight and review process, could actually result in withdrawn state delegation authority,” she said. “That’s very concerning to me on one level and the additional cost of participating in the other aspects under Alternative 2 … they don’t provide any benefit to state management. If you have to make decisions with limited resources, in that aspect, that was what I meant by unwilling to accept the conditions required under Alternative 2.”

The only commenter who supported Alternative 4 was the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. The alternative to close the EEZ makes the most sense with the options before the council, given that the federal government is not easily able to respond to in-season changes, the group said in its comments.

The move to close the fishery could potentially push more fish to inriver users. But that’s one of the concerns the commercial fishermen have; if too many salmon, particularly sockeye, escape into the river past sportfishermen, the fishermen say it will overtip the biological carrying capacity on the river and cause a crash in the stock.

ADFG biologists make recommendations to the Board of Fisheries to set escapement goals based on biological assessments and on harvest patterns, and the board makes final allocation decisions that include altering the goals.

Several of the council members expressed reservations about voting to close the EEZ, acknowledging the negative impact on the commercial fishery and the communities. In particular, the cities of Kenai, Seward, and Homer all collect revenue from their commercial fisheries landing taxes. Council member Andy Mezirow, who lives in Seward, noted that this was a difficult decision, particularly for younger fishermen in Cook Inlet.

“They put their faith in this council process, participated like professionals in the Salmon FMP committee, and if we adopt Alternative 4, this process has failed to serve them,” Mezirow said. “I’m concerned about the message we are sending these and other bright young fishermen who take the time and effort to participate. And finally, I’m concerned about what it means to make a decision that might result in the end of a fishery in my backyard that’s been prosecuted for over a hundred years.”

However, he said the state’s argument and the council’s timeline pushed the vote, and said he hoped there could be an additional process outside the council to alleviate some of the negative impact to the fishery.

Many Cook Inlet commercial fishermen were frustrated and angered at the decision. In a statement issued Monday night, UCIDA pointed to political ties between ADFG, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association as potential causes for the vote, saying, “The fix was in.”

The Alaska Salmon Alliance, an industry group representing processors in Cook Inlet, expressed disappointment in a statement issued Dec. 8, pointing to Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang’s office as a source for the wrench in the FMP development process. There will likely be more challenges due to the state’s decision, the organization said.

“Meanwhile, the State of Alaska’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude has frightening ramifications for other Alaskan fisheries,” the group said in its statement. “The state and the federal government have numerous cooperative agreements for managing many other fisheries around the state and this new policy by the Dunleavy administration can affect all of those.”

The council ultimately voted to support closing the EEZ 10-0, with NMFS Regional Director Dr. James Balsiger abstaining. The fishery will likely not be closed for the upcoming 2021 season, as the FMP still has to make its way through the federal rulemaking process.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/09/2020 - 9:19am