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NOAA closes federal Cook Inlet waters to commercial salmon fishing for 2022

Published: Nov. 3, 2021 at 10:25 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries this week amended one of its fishery management plans to now bar commercial salmon fishermen from operating in the federal waters of Cook Inlet, the main body of water located just west of the Kenai Peninsula in the Southcentral part of the state.

The amendment, Amendment 14, does not close any salmon fishing in state waters, but instead prohibits commercial salmon fishing in the federal waters of Cook Inlet, the area spanning from 3 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles off the coast of Alaska and referred to as the Cook Inlet Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ.

The change is to go into effect to be in place for the 2022 Cook Inlet EEZ commercial salmon fishery. It’s the result of a decision made in December 2020 by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which had been weighing four alternatives for dealing with the fishery management plan for salmon in the EEZ.

The first alternative would have taken no action, and the second option was to have federal oversight of the waters with some management delegated to the state. The third alternative was complete federal oversight and management of the Cook Inlet EEZ, and the fourth was to have federal oversight of the EEZ waters and to close them to commercial salmon fishing.

This closure limits the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery to the state waters, which stretch to 3 nautical miles off Alaska’s shore.

While some are celebrating the move – and NOAA maintains it was the direct result of a previous lawsuit – others are displeased with the decision and would’ve preferred a different route, or at least more time to consider alternatives.

“It really affects all of the user groups in Cook Inlet,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “Because by shutting down the EEZ – I’m a Cook Inlet commercial fisher, I’m a drifter, I spend about 50% of my time or more fishing the EEZ, the federal waters of Cook Inlet, where the drift gillnet fisheries take place — this closure is substantial.

“It’s going to lump all user groups in one small area, near the rivers,” he continued, “and that’s going to impact every user group.”

Ben Mohr, of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said Wednesday that the move is bittersweet.

“‘Bitter’ in that we have a lot of friends and neighbors on the Kenai Peninsula that rely on the commercial fishery for their businesses,” he said, “but ‘sweet’ in the perspective that ultimately, what this is going to result in is more fish down for Cook Inlet rivers and streams.”

Out of more than 200 written comments that were submitted ahead of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association was the only entity that submitted public comment in favor of the alternative that closed the EEZ to commercial salmon fishing.

In its recent release, NOAA expanded on the amendment being an implication of lawsuit proceedings, during which Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishermen and processors challenged the exclusion of the Cook Inlet EEZ from the Fishery Management Plan for the Salmon Fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone off Alaska, also known as the Salmon FMP.

The 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 — centered on the exclusion, and had allowed the State of Alaska to manage commercial salmon fishing in the area up until this point.

“After appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Cook Inlet EEZ must be included in the Salmon FMP to comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” wrote NOAA officials, adding that the act “requires Fishery Management Councils to prepare FMPs for fisheries under their jurisdiction that require conservation and management.”

After the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s decision in late 2020, the group then forwarded its recommended amendment to the Fishery Management Plan to the Secretary of the Department of Commerce for approval and implementation.

“The Council unanimously recommended,” they continued, “and NOAA Fisheries is implementing Amendment 14 to the Salmon FMP and Federal regulations to comply with this decision.”

The management council, NOAA Fisheries, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the public — when taking into consideration extensive public testimony — developed the amendment 2017 to 2020, NOAA said.

“It was ultimately concluded that closing the Cook Inlet EEZ to commercial salmon fishing optimized conservation and management of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery,” the agency concluded, “when considering the costs and benefits of the viable management alternatives.”

Commercial fishermen who testified before the fishery management council’s decision, however, said they wouldn’t be able to effectively fish in the 3 nautical miles of state waters when sharing them with other user groups. Many testified that salmon harvests are going to be negatively affected.

NOAA maintains it made no substantive changes from the original proposal in the final rule, which goes into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register and, again, will affect the 2022 Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing season in federal waters.

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