OPINION: State forces council to close Cook Inlet for business

  • The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted on Dec. 7 to close the federal waters of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing despite the strong objections by the drift fleet, local communities and legislators. (Photo/Steven Kazlowski/AlaskaStock)

The federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council dropped the latest bomb on Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, but it was the Alaska Department of Fish and Game flying the plane.

On Dec. 7 of all days, the council adopted the state-backed alternative to completely close commercial salmon fishing in the federal waters of Cook Inlet more than three miles offshore where some half of the salmon harvest is historically taken by the drift fleet.

Through his designee to the council, Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker, ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang informed the council that the state would refuse to accept a delegation of federal authority to manage the Cook Inlet salmon fishery.

Under the alternative backed by Cook Inlet commercial stakeholders and unanimously supported by the council’s Advisory Panel, the state would continue to manage the fishery in both state and federal waters, but with federal oversight to ensure state management complies with the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

State management that complies with the MSA has long been the demand of Cook Inlet drift fishermen and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with them when it ordered the council to adopt a fishery management plan, or FMP, that applied the federal law to the federal waters of Cook Inlet.

By refusing to accept the delegation of authority that would come with federal oversight, the state left the council with no choice but to adopt the alternative that instead completely closes fishing and deals a potential deathblow to hundreds of multi-generation Alaskan permit holders and the coastal community businesses that depend on them.

This hardly aligns with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “Open for Business” motto for his administration, yet it is his appointees to ADFG and the Board of Fisheries that are actively attempting to put fellow Alaskans out of business based on the whims of the anti-commercial fishing lobby on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Mat-Su Valley.

Cook Inlet is among the most heavily resident fisheries in the state; 75 percent of drift permit holders and 80 percent of setnet permit holders are Alaskans. Many can trace their family fishing history back for decades predating statehood.

Bob Penney, who donated more than $300,000 to help elect Dunleavy, has been waging war on Cook Inlet setnetters for decades, up to and including a state ballot initiative that would have banned them entirely until it was struck down as unconstitutional at the Alaska Supreme Court.

Restrictions on setnetters adopted by the Board of Fisheries have succeeded in destroying the value of permits and limiting harvests, and the drift fleet that is the boogeyman for the Valley has now been successfully targeted for execution through the federal council.

The state crafted a red herring argument that it would be unworkable to manage federal and state waters, but this is belied by existing arrangements in other fisheries.

The state has a joint agreement with the federal government to manage Bering Sea crab stocks in which Alaska adopts the harvest strategy based on the federal science and in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act; the state manages all the crab stocks in the Gulf of Alaska, also in harmony with the MSA.

The state likewise manages Yukon River and Southeast king salmon stocks under delegated authority from the federal government that must comply with the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

Therefore the argument that it is impossible or even difficult for the state to manage the federal waters of Cook Inlet in a similar fashion is prima facie nonsense.

Simply put, the state doesn’t want to follow federal law in Cook Inlet not because it is difficult, but because it wants to make allocations and manage the fishery without regard to science.

This action by the council forced upon it by the state is also a direct slap in the face to the 9th Circuit, which hopefully will not look kindly on its order to comply with the MSA being circumvented through this action to shut down a viable commercial fishery.

Ten national standards were added to the MSA when it was reauthorized in 2006 and this action potentially runs afoul of at least half of them.

No. 1 requires management to achieve, “on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery.” Shuttering a fishery that will undoubtedly result in foregone harvest does not achieve optimum yield. Resulting overescapement that reduces future harvests for all stakeholder groups violates this standard.

No. 2 requires that management measures “shall be based upon the best scientific information available.” There is no science backing up this action.

No. 3 requires that a stock be managed “as a unit throughout its range.” Whether no management counts as management will be something for the 9th Circuit to consider.

No. 8 requires that management “take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities by utilizing economic and social data … in order to (a) provide for the sustained participation of such communities and (b) to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities.” Killing fishing communities for no reason other than a refusal to accept federal oversight is about as blatant a violation of this standard as can be imagined.

No. 10 requires that management shall “promote the safety of human life at sea.” Forcing boats into a smaller area has the potential to create unsafe fishing conditions and unavoidable gear conflicts with shore-based setnetters.

In an Oct. 6 letter to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes regarding the Pebble mine, Dunleavy wrote in his opening sentence that, “As governor of Alaska, one of my duties is to create economic opportunity for the benefit of all Alaskans utilizing every available resource within our borders.”

Squaring that duty with what his appointees just pulled on Alaskan fishing families in Cook Inlet is going to be a tall order. Explaining how this follows his “Open for Business” policy after we’ve already lost 40,000 jobs will be impossible.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/10/2020 - 10:19am