NOAA seeks comment on Cook Inlet EEZ salmon fishery proposal

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comment through July 6 on a proposal from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to amend a Cook Inlet fishery management plan to prohibit commercial salmon fishing in federal waters off the Inlet.

The proposal is prompting concern among commercial fish harvesters because of its potential economic impact to harvesters and to the economy of the Kenai Peninsula. Closing those federal waters in the exclusive economic zone would hurt the drift gillnet fleet, as about 70% of the Cook Inlet gillnetters fish there.

The NPFMC first developed the salmon fishery management plan for Cook Inlet under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act over 40 years ago. The current plan excludes designated federal waters in Cook Inlet, allowing the state to manage commercial salmon fishing in that area.

After a court ruling directing that the salmon FMP and associated federal regulations be amended to include a portion of the Cook Inlet EEZ currently excluded, the North Pacific Council in December voted to recommend Amendment 14 to the FMP. Amendment 14 would implement federal management of commercial salmon fishing in the Cook Inlet EEZ, and close that area to commercial salmon fishing as part of the fishery management plan’s west area. The west area includes EEZ waters in the Gulf of Alaska west of Cape Suckling, as well as the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Commercial salmon fishing in the west area outside of Cook Inlet is already prohibited to facilitate management by the state, consistent with the council’s longstanding salmon management policy, NOAA officials said.

United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which represents 570 drift gillnet salmon fishing permit holders in Cook Inlet, wants the fishery to be managed for maximum sustained yield, said Dave Martin, president of UCIDA. “When they let us fish in the EEZ, close to 70% of the drift fishing is there. It was pretty clear,” he said. “Fishermen spent three years telling them [the council] what needed to be done to be compliant with Magnuson-Stevens.

“If this goes through it is in violation of all 10 national standards, it will probably end up back in the court. The state seems hell-bent on closing the fishery. There are plenty of fish for everybody if it is managed right.”

This summer the EEZ is still open, subject to emergency order from Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang.

“Hopefully there will be a federal remedy that will keep the Cook Inlet drifters able to fish,” said Andy Mezirow, a council member and veteran fishing charter captain in Seward. “They contribute a lot to the economy. I want them to have jobs.” Mezirow also said he agrees with former Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, who said the problem could be fixed by changing the federal law regarding federal management in Cook Inlet.

The current situation is rooted in litigation in which Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishermen and processors challenged the exclusion of the Cook Inlet EEZ from the salmon FMP. In its decision on an appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court held that the Cook Inlet EEZ must be included in the salmon FMP under Magnuson-Stevens, which requires fishery management councils to prepare FMPs for fisheries under their jurisdiction that require conservation and management.

After working on the issue from 2017 to 2020 the council concluded that closing the Cook Inlet EEZ to commercial salmon fishing optimized conservation and management of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries when considering costs and benefits of available management alternatives.

According to NOAA Fisheries drift gillnetters could continue to harvest in state waters, with the state adopting management measures to provide additional harvest opportunities within state waters to make up for the EEZ closure.

The final rule implementing this action would have to be published in the Federal Register by Dec. 11 as a term of the Ninth Circuit Court’s judgment order. If approved, it is expected to be in effect for the 2022 fishing season.

Comments should be addressed to Glenn Merrill, assistant regional administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region NMFS, Attn: Susan Meyer, and identified by FDMS Docket Number NOAA-NMFS-2015-0081.

Submit comments electronically via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov,

Or mail to P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668.