NPFMC decision puts Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery in jeopardy

Council members say this is one of the most difficult decisions they have faced

Final action by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet threatens to exclude drift gillnet harvesters from fishing in the inlet’s commercial waters at the start of the 2022 fishing season.

In a near unanimous decision reached during the council’s virtual meeting on Monday, Dec. 7, the panel selected an alternative that would close off to the commercial fleet federal waters outside of three miles from shore, an area where most of the fleet get the bulk of its catch.

The decision came after Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, told the council that Alternative 2, which would have delegated certain management functions to the state, with federal oversight of all state management actions for Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishing in federal waters, was not acceptable to the state.

“The state has carefully considered the impacts of having to participate in this federal oversight process in addition to carrying out the fishery management functions necessary under established state fishery management plans,” Baker told the council. “It is clear that the proposed federal oversight process under Alternative 2 would impose costs and burdens on ADF&G without benefitting state management of Upper Cook Inlet salmon stocks.”

“In addition, establishing a separate annual management and oversight process only for federal waters has the potential to negatively impact management of salmon fisheries in state waters and all user groups that participate in those fisheries,” she said.

Since the state is not willing to accept delegated management of the Upper Cook Inlet drift gillnet fishery as required under Alternative 2, the council should weight the costs and benefits of alternatives 3 and 4 for final action, she said.

The council then chose alternative 4, with Jim Balsiger, regional administrator of the Alaska regional office of NOAA fisheries, abstaining.  Balsiger said he mostly abstained from voting because of anticipated litigation, but also because he felt that the council action did not reflect the request of the 230 public comments submitted in letters or the oral testimony of 30 people during the virtual meeting.

“There was a failure to communicate with the interested party who all advocated for an action that the council could not legally take,” he said.

According to Doug Duncan, a NOAA fisheries management specialist who has worked on the Cook Inlet Salmon Fishery Management Plan, the council’s action could close the federal waters of the exclusive economic zone to commercial fishing starting with the 2022 commercial fishing season. Under the 2013 ruling handed down by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the council had to make a final decision on the Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan by its December meeting.

Now the council’s decision goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Department of Commerce for review. Their final decision on whether to approval part or all of the council’s decision must be published by Dec. 10, 2021, Duncan said.

“Based on everything we know right now, if the Secretary (of Commerce) does approve the council’s recommendation, the EEZ would be closed in 2022,” he said.

Dave Martin, president of United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said his association plans to challenge the NPFMC decision, but first will wait to see what action is taken by the Commerce Department. As for the council’s decision, “we are extremely disappointed,” he said.

Council members and others, including Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, also expressed criticism of the council’s decision.

“It is unfortunate, heartbreaking,” said John Jensen, a council member from Petersburg.

“I hope there are some options in the future for getting back to this. It’s not where we want it to be.”

“I don’t think we should be in a position to make this choice,” said Nicole Kimball, a council member employed by the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “I feel we are trying to achieve the best of alternative actions. This is so negative to so many Alaskans. The real authority lies with the Secretary of Commerce. I feel there is no acceptable choice here. I feel disappointed that we are in this position.”

Andy Mezirow, a charter fisheries operator in Seward, called the council’s decision one of the most difficult to come before the council.

“This has the potential of being damaging to fishermen, processors and the economy,” Mezirow said. “I am concerned about the message this is sending to young fishermen. The truth is there is no good answer to this problem.”