Fishery council votes to adopt state recommendation, closing Cook Inlet federal waters to commercial salmon fishing

The area in red depicts the federal waters, Exclusive Economic Zone, of Cook Inlet.
The area in red depicts the federal waters, Exclusive Economic Zone, of Cook Inlet.(NOAA Fisheries)
Published: Dec. 7, 2020 at 8:54 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The council responsible for managing federal fisheries in Alaska voted on Monday to close commercial salmon fishing in the federal waters of Cook Inlet.

The alternative approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was introduced by the State of Alaska’s representative on the council and was vehemently opposed by all but one person, group or government entity that provided public testimony or written comment.

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

Council action on incorporating the federal waters of Cook Inlet into a federal Fishery Management Plan was necessitated by a lawsuit brought against federal managers by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which represents the drift gillnet fleet of Cook Inlet and was unhappy with state management. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that NPFMC incorporate the federal waters of Cook Inlet into a federal Fishery Management Plan by the end of the year.

Although UCIDA won its lawsuit, the resulting action is one that deals its members and other commercial fishermen, processors, supporting businesses and coastal communities a costly blow.

The Council considered four action alternatives.

The overwhelming majority of the public supported alternative two, which gave the federal government oversight of the salmon fishery in federal waters of Cook Inlet while delegating in-season management to the State of Alaska. The Council’s Advisory Panel unanimously recommended this alternative.

Alternative four would transfer management of commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet to the federal government and close that fishery. The only testimony in support of this alternative was from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

After hours of public testimony, Rachel Baker, the deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the state’s representative on the council, moved that the council adopt alternative four.

“After reviewing the analysis and impacts of the alternatives, considering the public testimony that we received, the State of Alaska has determined it is unwilling to accept delegated management authority under alternative two,” Baker said.

Baker said that the additional regulatory burden of alternative two would significantly cost the state without any additional benefit.

“Essentially, the conditions required under alternative two that we talked about for delegated management authority to the state, those conditions including the federal oversight and review process, the council salmon plan team, the status determination criteria, recommendation on an annual basis, those conditions are just unacceptable in terms of our ability to participate in that process,” Baker said.

The motion to adopt alternative four passed 10-0-1. Other council members expressed reservations about the action, but ultimately voted in support of the state’s movement.

Councilman Jim Balsiger is the Alaska Regional Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Balsiger summarized the complexity, irony, and gravity of the situation when explaining his intent to abstain from voting.

“Because this issue has been and is likely again to be challenged in court and possibly litigated, and because NMFS is under court order to address this matter of management of salmon in federal waters of cook inlet by time certain, I have decided that is best for me to abstain from voting on this issue,” Balsiger said.

Councilwoman Nicole Kimball, who works for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, expressed concern about the economic impact and tangible effects on communities of the Kenai Peninsula.

“I don’t think there are any positive outcomes of any of the alternatives with the exception of status quo, which is not available to us as a direct result of the litigation. And so I feel truly like we’re trying to choose the best of all terrible options,” Kimball said. “But given that the State of Alaska, who’s managed salmon since statehood, is unwilling to take on a delegated management role under alternative two, I think that brings all our alternatives to a much narrower scope. And while I actually follow the argument of how that alternative might be better long term for salmon management in the State of Alaska, it’s very challenging for me on this issue because the near term impacts are so negative for so many Alaskans.”

While taking final action on the alternatives at hand was the most urgent task, the council members did ask some testifiers about ways to turn management of the commercial salmon fishery in Cook Inlet back to over to the state of Alaska in a way that complies with the court’s ruling and interpretation of the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The solution, as one council member characterized it, is “fairly simple”: amend the act. All it takes is an act of Congress.

Republican State Sen. Peter Micciche, who is a drift gillnet fishermen in Cook Inlet and also participates in personal use and sportfishing, testified on behalf of implementing alternative two until the act governing federal fisheries could be amended.

“I’ve really just become aware of what needs to change, and I have begun the effort to reach out to the delegation to reach out for that simple amendment to MSA,” Micciche said.

The only person to speak on behalf of the alternative to close commercial fishing in the federal waters of Cook Inlet also was asked if he would support the state having complete management authority of the salmon in Cook Inlet instead of the closure of federal waters if a change in federal law were to allow that as a legal option.

“Yes,” Ben Mohr, executive director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association said during public testimony. “We’re not looking to shut everything down. What our bigger emphasis here is that it should be a state-managed fishery. With specifics, what would need to change as an amendment to MSA, there is a small language fix that I think could be applied to an amendment, and we would be happy to work with Sen. Micciche and any other stakeholder out there to get that fishery into state management.”

Baker was asked during council deliberations if there were to be a “congressional fix,” if the state would support changing the Fishery Management Plan again to give all management of commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet back over the state.

“The state has consistently been on the record as supporting the status quo, and so I think that if there was a change in the future that made that feasible, it would be a reasonable thing to examine in the future,” Baker said.

After Monday’s vote, the council will forward its recommended amendment to the Fishery Management Plan to the Secretary of the Department of Commerce for approval and implementation. The council’s general counsel said Monday that the court order requires that review process to be completed within a year, but that otherwise moving forward the amendment will undergo the rulemaking process outlined in the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. That process includes an opportunity for public comment on the proposed rule in the Federal Register. The timeline would make the changes effective for the 2022 fishing season.

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