State fisheries excluded from federal plan over commercial objections

With the Magnuson-Stevens Act up for reauthorization in 2012, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is still getting caught up on the requirements added to the law in 2007.

At its recent meeting in Anchorage, the council checked one of the final boxes to bring each fishery management plan, or FMP, into compliance with the 2007 revised MSA.

The council, which has deferred management of salmon to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since 1979 and hasn’t reviewed the salmon FMP since 1990, officially excluded the Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries from the FMP with a unanimous vote.

The Southeast Alaska salmon troll fishery will remain in the FMP with state management to provide a nexus for meeting requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act and the international Pacific Salmon Treaty.

Commercial fishermen from Cook Inlet and a former Fish and Game Department commercial fisheries manager urged the council to maintain state management of salmon fisheries while retaining federal oversight and updating the plan to clarify council objectives to meet Magnuson-Stevens Act national standards.

The drift fleet and setnetters mainly have complaints about how the Alaska Board of Fisheries sets escapement goals, arguing that they are not set for maximum sustainable yield as required by the MSA.

The revised MSA requires that all species under a FMP must have annual catch limits and accountability measures to prevent overfishing. This is problematic for salmon because abundance cannot be predicted in advance and a federal catch limit set in the preseason would not have the flexibility of in-season management to deal with returns higher or lower than forecast.

Revisions to the MSA in 2007 specifically mention Pacific salmon as a species that may be managed with tools other than annual catch limits, and the council action affirms that state escapement goal management of salmon meets national standards to achieve optimum yield.

Commercial fishermen argued that the current board favors recreational fishermen at their expense, saying that area, gear and time restrictions put in place by the board allow overescapement to spawning streams, which prevents the optimum yield from being harvested and creates highly variable returns.

As evidenced by the unanimous decision, the council did not agree with that argument. Dan Hull of Anchorage said the state escapement goal management currently meets Magnuson-Stevens standards; and the motion adopted by the council affirms the state remains bound by all applicable federal law including the MSA.

Jeff Fox — who until the end of the 2011 salmon season was a commercial fisheries manager for ADFG in Soldotna — is now a member of the Alaska Salmon Alliance and told the council that escapement goals as set by the Board of Fisheries are not being set for maximum sustained yield.

Rather, Fox stated, the board is using sustainable escapement goals, optimum escapement goals and in-river goals designed to benefit recreational anglers by putting more fish into the rivers and placing greater restrictions on commercial fishermen to achieve those goals.

Setnetters and the drift fleet traditionally ended up splitting the Cook Inlet salmon harvest about 50-50, but under new rules passed by the board last March the two sectors were decoupled.

With a new Tuesday setnet closure approved by the board that was kept in place even as a top-five all-time sockeye return flooded the Inlet and an expanded drift fleet corridor available to managers along the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the harvest split ended up about 2-1 in favor of the drift fleet.

That put ADFG managers in an uncomfortable position of making allocation decisions and setnetters were abruptly shut down Aug. 7 after sportfishing groups protested the decision to allow two days of fishing openers prior to the normal Monday period with the Kenai River king salmon return looking likely to miss its escapement goal.

In a comment to Roland Maw, executive director of United Cook Inlet Drift Association, council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak noted that optimum yield under Magnuson-Stevens can be reduced by socio-economic factors such as community benefits.

Maw responded that the issue for UCIDA and other commercial fishermen was not allocation.

“It’s about abundance of the stock,” Maw said. “These are biological issues.”

Reg resolution

UCIDA hasn’t been reticent to challenge state salmon management in court, and this summer was no exception when it successfully stopped emergency regulations adopted by the board June 30.

The state of Alaska and UCIDA reached an agreement Oct. 25 that replaces the original restraining order and injunction. Rather than declaring UCIDA et al the winners, the new order states far less declaratively that, “plaintiffs have shown that at trial they will likely prevail on the merits of some or all of their claims.”

The board met June 30 to correct errors in regulatory language it determined did not meet its intent to restrict the commercial fishermen when passed last March.

The original restraining order issued by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi July 13 — replaced by the Oct. 25 order — stated that UCIDA, Copper River Seafoods and several fishermen had succeeded on the merits of their claim that the board finding of an emergency was improper.

The regulations in question have since been formally revised by ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell after the board delegated her authority to make the changes at another emergency meeting Aug. 8.

The revised order makes no mention of the board decision declaring an emergency to correct an error in regulation being improper, a key point for the state moving forward to defend agency authority to take emergency actions.

12/22/2011 - 8:51am