Cook Inlet fish wars dominate headlines again in 2014

Courtesy/National Marine Fisheries Service

The Upper Cook Inlet fisheries were tense in 2014, with an emotional Board of Fisheries meeting in the winter and new restrictions in the summer.

Alaska’s Board of Fisheries met in Anchorage in late January and early February to discuss management plans for Upper Cook Inlet. By the end of the two-week meeting, the board for the first time approved changes that paired restrictions for sport and commercial fishermen.

The board considered 236 proposals at the meeting. Among the proposals that passed were those amending the Kenai River late-run king salmon management plan. The paired restrictions meant that this summer, Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries managers had to take certain actions when the sport fishery was restricted.

Sport representatives generally supported the pairings, saying it was a fair way to share the burden of conservation, while commercial fishermen said it reduced their effort more than it reduced sport effort.

This summer, setnetters harvested about 930,300 salmon in the Kasilof, Kenai, and East Forelands sections and the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, about one-third of the 3.1 million salmon caught commercially in Upper Cook Inlet.

The setnet harvest included about 704,272 sockeye, 216,233 pinks, 6,461 coho, 2,055 kings and 792 chums.

Ultimately, setnetters in the Kenai and East Forelands sections had six openings this summer; Kasilof section setnetters had 14, while the Kasilof Special Harvest Area was open for 17 periods.

The total Upper Cook Inlet harvest is on par with 2013, when commercial fishermen also harvested about 3.1 million salmon, although that was a non-pink year, and the total is less than the 1966-2012 average of 4.1 million salmon.

Other changes were also at play this summer.

The Kenai fishing season began with a closure for early-run kings for the first time ever, and ADFG also used a provision that required anglers to use barbless hooks later in the season, when it appeared that the late-run king salmon goal might not be met.

The drift fleet also faced changes, primarily to where they could fish; the board created a new section near Anchor Point, and limited use of the middle of Cook Inlet to try and send more silvers north to the Matanuska-Susitna region.

2. Setnet initiative certified

The Cook Inlet fish wars didn’t end at the Board of Fisheries. Voters could be asked to decide whether to ban setnets in certain parts of Alaska under a court decision issued in July.

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, or AFCA, filed a ballot initiative petition in November 2013 seeking to ask voters whether to ban setnets in urban parts of the state, which would primarily impact Upper Cook Inlet setnetters.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter overturned then-Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s decision to reject the proposed ballot initiative, and ordered the lieutenant governor to certify the initiative and allow proponents to continue the process of gathering signatures to get the question on the 2016 ballot.

Treadwell struck down the initiative in January based on a state Department of Law opinion asserting that it would be a prohibited resource appropriation not allowed under the Alaska Constitution.

AFCA began collecting signatures in 2014, although the state is also appealing the court decision.

3. Judge ordered changes to observer program

A federal judge ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare a supplemental environmental assessment for the revised marine observer program that was implemented in 2013.

U.S. Alaska District Judge H. Russel Holland found in August that NMFS did not account for whether it would lose data quality after learning that higher costs would reduce the amount of observer days at sea by more than half compared to what was originally planned.

Holland didn’t require any immediate changes to the program, but the North Pacific Fishery Management Council opted to change it anyway.

The revised observer program was implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, in 2013. It was intended to increase the statistical reliability of data collected through the observer program, address cost inequality among fishery participants and expand observer coverage to previously unobserved fisheries, such as halibut longline vessels, according to a summary from the agency.

Initially, smaller boats, like halibut longliners were generally in the vessel selection pool, meaning that they’re randomly selected for 60 days of coverage at a time. Large boats, including Gulf of Alaska trawlers, are in the trip selection pool, where they must log each fishing trip and are randomly selected for coverage on one trip at a time.

Previously, all of the halibut vessels and all other vessels less than 60 feet long were unobserved.

Under the council’s changes, all vessels will be part of the trip pool, eliminating the requirement that some carry an observer for 60 days.

The Boat Company, a nonprofit that operates marine tours in Southeast, along with fishing opportunity and conservation education, sued federal fisheries managers in U.S. Alaska District Court in Anchorage over the revised at-sea observer program in December 2012.

Holland wrote in an Aug. 6 order that a new environmental assessment, or EA, was necessary to look at when observer coverage rates were too low to provide adequate information, and said that the federal defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act by failing to consider that possibility.

4. Disaster Funds distributed

A full two years after then-Gov. Sean Parnell declared certain fisheries a disaster, commercial fishermen received direct payments to help compensate them for their losses.

The Yukon River designation was made for 2010, 2011 and 2012; the Kuskokwim River commercial failure was declared for 2011 and 2012; and the 2012 declaration was made for Cook Inlet, according to a letter from Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of commerce, to Parnell. Runs on each of those rivers were well below average.

The direct aid payments were the first use of the money, accounting for about $7.5 million of the $20.8 million appropriated for the disaster.

Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit, is administering the grants.

For Cook Inlet, 454 checks were mailed, after 481 eligible fishermen received applications for the payments. Another 330 checks were sent to Kuskokwim fishermen, out of 471 initially expected to be eligible, and 564 out of 599 eligible Yukon fishermen received payments.

Cook Inlet fishermen received a $2,000 fixed payment plus an additional percentage based on their landings history from 2007 to 2011. Yukon River fishermen received an estimated $4,952, and Kuskokwim River fishermen received about $165 payments.

Although the commercial payments were sent this year, the rest of the money has not been distributed, although it’s expected to be used for payments to guides and other businesses in Cook Inlet that lost money, research, habitat and other projects.

5. APOC complaints

The Alaska Public Offices Commission received more than 250 complaints related to Cook Inlet fisheries in August and September. About 200 arrived at once in August, more than the commission typically receives in a year.

The volume of complaints was about 10 times the amount APOC typically receives over an entire year; in 2013 the commission received 12 complaints according to its biennial report.

Ultimately, former Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels received fines. A complaint against Treadwell was heard but dismissed, and the other complaints were not accepted.

The accepted complaints revolved around public officials participation in the Kenai River Classic, other complaints were about the Kenai River Women’s Classic and lobbying at Board of Fisheries meetings. Nearly all were lodged by individuals from Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula with ties to the commercial fishing industry.

11/18/2016 - 11:31am