Year in Review: Cook Inlet closure ends 2020 as top fisheries story

  • Sockeye salmon fall onto the sorting belt at Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai. Processors are among the nearly unanimous opposition to the closure of federal waters of Upper Cook Inlet that was approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Dec. 7. (Photo/Elizabeth Earl/For the Journal)

Even a normal year in Alaska’s fisheries can be full of anticipation, but this year’s pandemic, management snarls and underwhelming salmon returns threw extra knots into the nets for commercial fishermen.

Late this year, after a record-breakingly poor season, Cook Inlet commercial fishermen got an extra punch in the gut in the form of a complete closure in the federal waters of the inlet. The North Pacific Fishery Management’ Council’s decision drew outcry from hundreds of commercial fishermen, both about the actual content of the decision and the process in which it was introduced.

The closure was the result of four alternatives presented to develop a fishery management plan, or FMP, after a years-long process resulting from a lawsuit brought by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

In 2016, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the council had to develop an FMP for salmon fishing in the federal waters of the Inlet rather than deferring to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as it had been doing. After several years of stakeholder meetings and expert reports to the council, the members were presented with four options, including an option introduced by the state for completely closing the EEZ.

The decision, which would block commercial salmon fishing in the entire EEZ of Cook Inlet — where estimates say about 20 to 25 percent of the area’s annual commercial salmon harvest is taken —is not final yet.

The federal rulemaking process requires approval by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and could take about a year. If the closure goes forward, stakeholders say it could completely kill the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet.

Members of the council said at the December meeting they regretted having to make the decision, but were left with little choice after representatives of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang’s office said the state would not accept conditions of co-management of salmon in the Inlet.

In addition to fishermen and trade groups, the Alaska congressional delegation has called the decision unfortunate. The Kenai Peninsula legislative delegation, including Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Reps. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, and Sarah Vance, R-Homer, spoke against the process and the decision to close the area.

No. 2: Bristol Bay a bright spot among salmon harvests

This year, the North Pacific failed to deliver for a lot of salmon fishermen. Copper River’s sockeye run, usually a high-value early fishery, was a complete flop. Managers had to close the fishery completely after several weak openers, leaving fishermen in the region with empty nets.

To the west, sockeye runs started similarly slowly in Upper Cook Inlet and stalled completely when poor king salmon returns led to a complete closure for East Side setnets and restrictions for drift gillnets in mid-July.

Commercial fishermen gnashed their teeth at the end of the season when the Kenai River exceeded the upper end of its sustainable escapement goal by more than 500,000 sockeye, according to ADFG sonar counts. Southeast posted poor returns in both chum and pinks, and atop that, pink prices were dismal.

Bristol Bay and Kodiak were the only regions to deliver reasonably well for salmon, with Bristol Bay posting a total catch of about 39.2 million salmon, only slightly behind last year’s total. Kodiak posted a high pink salmon harvest, with about 21.2 million harvested.

3. USDA provides $50M in tariff relief

Almost immediately after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration announced tariffs on goods exchanged with China. In retaliation, the Chinese government instituted tariffs of its own on American products, including seafood. That spelled trouble for Alaska’s seafood industry, which relies on China as a major trade partner.

The tariffs weakened the market for Alaska’s seafood in Asia, leaving it already vulnerable to the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $50 million in tariff relief for affected fishermen in fisheries ranging from Atka mackerel and geoduck to Pacific cod and salmon.

Notably, though, the relief excluded Pacific halibut and sea cucumber harvesters. Though halibut is largely solid domestically, sea cucumber fishermen were affected directly by the tariffs.

The money was only available to harvesters, and is restricted only to effects linked to the tariffs. For effects of the pandemic, fishermen were directed to the CARES Act.

The aid was capped at $250,000 per person and was open until Dec. 14. Total aid to individuals is based on pounds, with the price depending on the species.

4. Emergency declarations sought for multiple fisheries

While some fishermen had bad years, particularly in the salmon fishery, none had it as bad as Chignik.

With dismal sockeye returns for the third year in a row, the Chignik commercial fishery didn’t open this year, and escapement still came in less than the goals. The community has been waiting for federal aid from its last disaster, the 2018 season, and just heard back in February with $10.3 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Chignik may not be the only fishery looking for help with its disaster in the 2020 season.

The Cordova City Council passed resolutions in August asking for federal disaster declarations for the 2018 Copper River king and sockeye runs and for the 2020 sockeye, chum, and king runs in the region.

The year started off on a sour note for Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen as well, with a complete closure to low numbers of available fish. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council announced the 2020 season closure late in 2019, the first time the fishery had been completely closed.

Biologists link the decline in the stock to warm ocean temperatures dating back to the “the Blob,” an abnormally warm mass of water in the central Gulf of Alaska that has had far-reaching effects on fish stock dynamics.

The cod fishery also requested a disaster declaration in 2018 and received an allocation of about $24.4 million alongside the allocation for Chignik in February 2020. The disbursement programs for both fisheries are being managed by the Pacific States Marine Commission

12/16/2020 - 9:15am