In unprecedented move, federal council takes no action on Cook Inlet plan

April 08, 2023

A federal council made the unprecedented decision to take no action on choosing a new fishing management plan for Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing yesterday, after it said it was left with no good options on a tight, court-ordered timeline.

By Sabine Poux, KDLL

That means management of the fishery will likely fall to the federal government — which council members and Cook Inlet fishermen warn could severely limit the fishery.

At its April meeting in Anchorage, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was supposed to choose between several potential management plans to delegate management of the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery. The council manages fishing in Alaska's federal waters, which start three miles offshore.

But council members, audibly frustrated, said none of the options before them were viable.

“The court-mandated timeline has forced this council into a box that we find ourselves in,” said Andy Mezirow, a charter boat captain out of Seward who sits on the council. “For these reasons, I can’t support any of the alternatives before us today, and I hope the public notes that fisheries management on a tight court-mandated timeline does not allow us to do our best work.”

The council’s been trying to figure out what to do with the fishery for years, following a lawsuit from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association over management of the fishery.

In 2020, in response, the council voted to close a large swath of Upper Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. That area — called the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ — is where drift fishermen say they catch a majority of their fish. Kenai Peninsula fishermen and advocates showed up, en masse, to the 2020 meeting to object to the closure.

UCIDA sued, once again, to overturn the decision. The court sided with them last June and the state reopened the fishery just as the 2022 season was starting up.

That was a temporary fix. At its meeting this month, the council was supposed to choose a new fishery management plan, or FMP. It’s under court order to have a plan in place by 2024.

Only a few fishermen showed up to that meeting to testify this time. One of them was Eric Huebesch, who lives in Kasilof and is a vice president of UCIDA.

“Writing a legal FMP amendment for the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery does not have to be this difficult,” he said.

He asked the council to pass an amended version of Alternative 2 — which would have set up a system of co-management between the state and the feds.

But at the meeting, the state once again said it refused to co-manage the fishery with the federal government, rendering that option unviable.

“The state of Alaska is not willing to accept delegated management authority for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery in the EEZ under the conditions specified in Alternative 2,” said Rachel Baker, representing the state of Alaska.

Two other options, to do nothing (Alternative 1) or close the fishery down completely, again (Alternative 4) were rendered illegal by the courts, so the council said it couldn’t pick those, either.

The final option, Alternative 3, delegates management of the fishery to the feds.

Jon Kurland is a regional administrator with NOAA Fisheries, the national agency that works with the council to set fisheries policy. He tried and failed to get the council to choose that alternative.

“We have been in a very difficult position on this issue,” Kurland said. “And I don’t ever want to be in a position of needing to initiate secretarial action on one of the council’s fishery management plans, for any reason. So this is really unfortunate.”

Advisory panels to the council said both alternatives could result in more restrictive management of the fishery. And they said Alternative 3, in particular, would require the feds to set up a system of federal salmon management that it doesn’t already have.

Council member Bill Tweit said the state has a management system that is well-tailored to the nuances of salmon management.

“The same cannot be said of the federal system,” he said.

He said the alternative would likely increase costs to the fishery and reduce revenues.

“That’s so contrary to what the initial proponents of this action were expecting,” Tweit said. “That’s not fair to them. That’s not right.”

Kurland couldn’t get any support on his motion. He said to comply with the court’s order, he’d have to move forward with implementing that alternative, anyway — known as secretarial action. Council members say the NPFMC has never had to take secretarial action, before.

Huebsch said that alternative, as written, violates the federal standards put forth in Magnuson-Stevens — the law that governs federal fisheries — because it sets catch limits and puts dates on fishing closures, for example. He said fishery decisions are sometimes made on an hourly basis and that the fishery needs to be flexible, to account for run timing.

“It’s clear to most people that Alternative 3 is designed to fail,” Huebsch said. “Or at least create a failed fishery.”

He said yesterday, after the decision was made, he doesn’t expect the alternative to hold up in court.

In the meantime, in the absence of any council decision, it heads to the feds for approval.

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