Council has 4 months to fix Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan

The future of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery is again in the air as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council debates how to manage it after a federal court ruled that it has to write a new plan.

It’s been six years since a federal court ruled that the council’s decision to remove Cook Inlet from a federal management plan and defer entirely to the state was illegal. The council initially decided to remove Cook Inlet in 2012, a decision that the United Cook Inlet Drift Association challenged in court. In 2016, the court agreed with the association, ordering the council to create a new federal management plan that includes the federal waters of Cook Inlet.

With input from a stakeholder committee, the council worked on the new plan from 2018 to 2020, voting on a set of options in late 2020. However, representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced at that meeting that they would not accept delegated management with federal oversight. The council then voted to accept an option that would have closed the federal waters to all commercial fishing.

UCIDA challenged that vote in court, saying that the decision was arbitrary and capricious, and a federal judge again agreed. Now, the council has to review the options again and vote on a final action by April 2023 in order to comply with the court’s timeline.

At their meeting on Dec. 10, Doug Duncan with the National Marine Fisheries Service told the council members that the deadline is set in April because the fisheries service still needs a year after that to finalize the management plan through the federal rulemaking process.

At this point, the proposal doesn’t look much different than it did in December 2020, when the council voted to accept Alternative 4, which would have closed the Cook Inlet federal waters to commercial salmon fishing. However, one major change that the court ruled had to be included was management of the sport fishery that takes place in federal waters. Homer, Anchor Point and Ninilchik are major launch points for guides and private sportfishermen nearby, where anglers often head out to fish particularly for king and coho salmon.

There are four total options: Do nothing, delegate management to the state with federal oversight, have the federal government directly manage the fishery, or close the fishery. Because of court decisions, the first and the fourth options aren’t really viable, Duncan said.

That leaves the council with the middle two options: Either delegate management to the state and oversee its decisions, or manage the fishery directly under the National Marine Fisheries Service. Federal management would be a fairly major change for how the fishery operates — the National Marine Fisheries Service does not actively manage salmon fisheries in Alaska at present, and because they are an anadromous species that are currently managed based on escapement into freshwater, the mechanics of regulation would change. For example, federal groundfish fisheries are often limited based on total allowable catch limits, which are set based on a population estimate before each season begins. Salmon fluctuate from year to year, which the state projects and manages for based on in-season information.

Council member Bill Tweit said the council’s decisions is challenging because they are stuck with one or the other — delegate to the state or set up entirely federal management. State representatives said in 2020 they would not accept delegated management because they saw it as a form of overreach, and Tweit said he understands from their perspective why delegation is not appealing.

“It strikes me as a state official as a truly unpalatable choice,” he said. “I would have great difficulty if I were sitting in the commissioner’s chair … it’s an intrusive oversight, even well-intentioned, well-meant, and well-founded in the (Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management) Act. Still, from a governmental perspective it’s very intrusive, and it requires the state agency to devote fairly significant resources that they don’t have to devote to facilitating the oversight of a federal agency.”

Most of the stakeholders agreed — they would prefer some form of state management with federal oversight over strictly federal management. That was the consensus from the beginning, even in 2018, when stakeholders began to weigh in on a new management plan. The 2020 decision to close the fishery drew ire from many of them and concern from the communities that depend on commercial fishing, such as Kenai and Homer. Homer has the largest harbor on Cook Inlet and depends on marine trades for a major slice of its economy.

Donna Aderhold, a Homer City Council member, told the council members that she appreciated their focus on economic impacts during this federal management plan development process, and urged them to consider the human implications of limiting or shrinking the fishery.

“Data points represent human beings,” she said. “They represent people. They represent my friends. There are people in Homer who have participated in the drift fleet who have sold their vessels, sold their permits, and moved out of Homer. Those individuals who leave Homer under those circumstances represent members of our port and harbor commission, they represent volunteers in our community, they represent people who serve on our nonprofit boards … they’re amazing people who have contributed a lot to our communities.”

Kenai Mayor Paul Ostrander echoed the economic concerns, as Kenai is home to the peninsula’s remaining large salmon processing facilities. The council there has repeatedly opposed the plan to close the federal waters to salmon fishing, but has not specifically supported an option going forward yet, he said.

“The city has not weighed in on which of the remaining alternatives should be adopted … but ultimately want this council to consider the importance of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and a critical component of the continued viability of that fishery is keeping the fishery open and managing it using the best science available,” he said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough planning director Robert Ruffner told the council that the borough supported passing “some variant of Alternative 2,” though said it was still unclear whether the state Fish and Game commissioner could issue a formal rejection of delegated management. He said the council should be involved in the scientific review process for setting escapement goals as well.

“We want to advocate for the best science available, and having some checks and balances and some peer review on those seems very appropriate because we’re going to build on that science in this process for all five species of salmon in the (federal waters),” Ruffner said.

Fish and Game deputy commissioner Rachel Baker, who represents Fish and Game on the council, said she agreed with Tweit’s concerns about the burden of work for the state in Alternative 2 and looked forward to more information at the next analysis. The council accepted the initial analysis, with requests to the National Marine Fisheries Service for more information about the details of alternatives 2 and 3 at its next meeting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

12/27/2022 - 11:11am