Cook Inlet fishermen, processors brace for big changes to salmon fishery management

Published: Dec. 2, 2020 at 8:15 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Changes are coming to the management of the commercial salmon fishery in Cook Inlet, and fishermen, processors and related businesses fear that federal regulators could close commercial salmon fishing in federal waters and cause an industry that has sustained families for generations on the Kenai Peninsula to collapse.

Prior to a lawsuit brought by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, commercial salmon fishing in both state and federal waters of Cook Inlet was managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Because of UCIDA’s lawsuit, the courts have ordered that the federal waters, or Exclusive Economic Zone, of Cook Inlet be incorporated into the federal Salmon Fishery Management Plan, and makes federal regulators responsible for managing the fishery in federal waters. The deadline to take final action is the end of the month.

Since 2017, stakeholders have been working with the council to develop alternatives to implement the federal management of the fishery, but an alternative introduced by the State of Alaska in October caught many fishermen off guard: complete closure of commercial salmon fishing in the federal waters of Cook Inlet.

“Personally, I did not expect this,” Georgie Heaverley, a drift gillnet fisherman in Cook Inlet said. “I’m a member of the committee of stakeholders that was formed to provide input and ultimately a recommendation to the Council for a path to move forward with a management plan. And for two years, the committee discussed and provided comments on Alternative 2, which is a form of cooperative federal and state management. So Alternative 4 was never on the table. It’s a very recent proposal by the State of Alaska. So yes, I was surprised.”

The Cook Inlet EEZ makes up about half the fishing grounds for the drift gillnet fleet.

The area in red are the federal waters of Upper Cook Inlet, which is transitioning away from...
The area in red are the federal waters of Upper Cook Inlet, which is transitioning away from management by ADF&G and to federal regulators.(NOAA Fisheries)

The Council is considering four alternatives:

Alternative 1 would leave the status quo, leaving the management responsibility for the EEZ to the state. The result of the UCIDA lawsuit and subsequent court order make that alternative illegal, but federal regulations require a no-action alternative be evaluated.

Alternative 2 is meant to replicate the status quo by delegating in-season management to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game but would create federal oversight and an annual Council process and Salmon Plan Team that applies to the federal fishery only.

Alternative 3 would give management, including in-season management, to National Marine Fisheries Service. Under this alternative, the commercial salmon fishery in the federal waters could be closed to address conservation or management concerns.

Alternative 4 would close commercial salmon fishing in the federal waters, while the state continues management in-state waters without federal involvement.

“I think if Alternative 4 were implemented, I would not be able to participate in the fishery, along with many other fishermen. It would no longer be economically viable,” Heaverley said. “It’s hardly economically viable as it is, so I am already looking to participate in other areas.”

Though drift gillnet fishermen would face the brunt of the burden should Alternative 4 be adopted, the economic consequences would ripple throughout the industry across the state.

“If they shut down the EEZ, it’s going to put such a damper on things that we won’t continue to operate in the area,” said Matt Haakenson, fleet manager for Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai. “It’s not just a slap in the face, it a slash of the throat of our industry.”

Haakenson says the processor employs around 300 people in peak season, and though it primarily processes salmon from Upper Cook Inlet, it also buys fish from other fisheries. Haakenson says historically, the processor gets about half of its salmon from the drift fleet and half from set gillnet fishermen.

Yet with restrictions in place to conserve species such as the Kenai River’s King salmon, set nets have been increasingly kept out of the water. Haakenson says the set net harvest alone wouldn’t be enough to prop up the processor, which then passes the burden on to fishermen in other areas.

“And we wouldn’t be able to buy other fish. We wouldn’t be able to buy the half-million pounds or so of halibut and black cod that we bought from Homer last year. And that’s going to be a loss to the community, not just us and the hundreds of people that work for us, but for all the fishermen who go out and catch those fish,” Haakenson said.

Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says that Alternative 4 was added to the potential options to bring clarity to both the council and the public that closure of the commercial salmon fishery in the EEZ was an option. Baker says that the state does not have a preferred alternative at this time, but will be engaged in the council process.

“It came to our attention essentially after the Council did a preliminary review of the analysis in June 2020 I believe, and it just became clear in Council discussion and discussions with staff that although closure of federal waters to commercial salmon fishing was a potential outcome, no one had really realized it, at least not broadly realized it,” Baker said. “One thing that’s required in Council analysis is for Council to consider a full set of reasonable alternatives. So it was really just a restructuring of the alternatives to make it very clear that commercial fishing in federal waters of Cook Inlet could be prohibited either through lack of information to National Marine Fisheries Service and a number of other management decisions that would occur, or it could occur through an explicit decision by the council, which was Alternative 4. And we felt it was just really important to make that clear and transparent to the public.”

The gravity of the consequences of Alternative 4 helped provoke a large response of public comments. In addition to fishing trade groups, environmental nonprofits Cook Inletkeeper and SalmonState, Sen. Peter Micciche and the Old Believer Village of Nikolaevsk commented against Alternative 4 and in support of a variation of Alternative 2. The City of Homer and City of Kenai both submitted resolutions passed by their council opposing Alternative 4.

Of 224 public comments, the only one supporting Alternative 4 was submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

“Kenai River Sportfishing Association really believes that management of the salmon fisheries in Alaska should be developed by Alaskans at the Board of Fisheries and Implemented by the Department of Fish and Game. We would’ve preferred Alternative 1, which would have been state management of those waters. Unfortunately, a lawsuit brought by one specific usergroup in Cook Inlet means that that’s not an option. And so the next best alternative to avoid federal overreach into our fisheries to focus that commercial fishery in state waters,” Ben Mohr, executive director of KRSA said.

Mohr says that Alternative 2, which is overwhelmingly the most supported alternative by all other commenters, still requires too much federal oversight.

“Our desire is not to shut down the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet,” Mohr said. “That’s not the intent of our comments. It’s not the intent of our support of Alternative 4. We think there is plenty of room for a viable commercial fishery in Cook Inlet, but the best place to do that is going to be at the state level.”

In the event Alternative 4 is adopted, that decision would also likely be challenged.

“Under MSA, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, there are 10 national standards which fishery management are supposed to at least evaluate and judge how actions would fall in these. A big one is national standard 1, which basically says that fisheries need to be managed to optimum yield,” Matt Alward, president of United Fishermen of Alaska. “You manage so that you can get the most fish out of a resource without harming sustainability at all. So Alternative 4, the analysis points out would most likely result in over escapement, at least the Kenai and Kasilof River, and possibly a lot of the other systems because the fish just wouldn’t be able to be harvested.”

Alward says that though Alternative 4 would effectively reallocate fish resources to other user groups — personal use, sportfishing, and set gillnet commercial fishermen.

“Which is fine, you can reallocate fish resources, but you’re supposed to have an analysis on the impacts so they can weigh,” Alward said. “Allocations are supposed to be fair and equitable to all users, and they didn’t really do any analysis on what the impacts would be of that reallocation, because this was on such a fast timeline, which was due to a court order. Normally the council would not be trying to move this fast at all. We don’t think they have the information they need to make informed decisions on the allocative aspects of it.”

Heaverley, the drifter who’s already begun looking to participate in other fisheries, says that if the federal salmon fishery is closed, it won’t be the end of fighting for fair access to the resource.

“I’m not sure what the future would look like for permit holders, but even if we no longer participate in the fishery, we will still do everything we can to continue advocating for opportunity with the Board of Fisheries, and now the Council, if we have to,” Heaverley said. “So it’s a fight that isn’t over, but it would be sort of nail in the coffin for the fishery for the near future, certainly.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting begins Friday and continues all of next week.

The meetings are streamed online. More information is available here.

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