Federal decision closing Cook Inlet EEZ to commercial harvests is challenged

Plaintiffs contend that the federal fisheries board lacks authority

A rule closing federal waters of Cook Inlet to salmon fishing starting in 2022 is being challenged in U.S. District Court in Anchorage by a libertarian public interest law firm on behalf of three veteran commercial salmon harvesters.

NOAA Fisheries released its decision, which impacts Cook Inlet drift gillnetters, on Nov 3.

On Nov. 10 the Pacific Legal Foundation, headquartered in Arlington, Va., filed suit.

The plaintiffs contend that members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council did not have the power to make such recommendations to NOAA Fisheries because council members were not appointed by the president, nor confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The final rule posted in the Federal Register prohibits commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet in the exclusive economic zone, the area spanning from three to 200 nautical miles off Alaska. The decision closes a portion of the historically used fishing area for the Cook Inlet drift gillnet salmon fishery, but allows the drift gillnet fleet to continue operating in state waters. State fisheries officials will continue to manage Cook Inlet salmon fishing sectors and may choose to modify management policies in future seasons in response to this federal action, NOAA officials said.

The Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan, or FMP, was developed over 40 years ago under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. It currently excludes designated federal waters in Cook Inlet, which has allowed the state of Alaska to manage commercial salmon fishing in the area.

Commercial fishermen and processors challenged the exclusion of the Cook Inlet EEZ from the FMP. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Cook Inlet EEZ must be included in the FMP to comply with Magnuson-Stevens, as that act requires fishery management councils to prepare FMPs for fisheries under their jurisdiction that require conservation and management.

The council recommended and NOAA Fisheries implemented Amendment 14 to the FMP and federal regulations to comply with the appeals court’s decision, NOAA officials said. According to NOAA, it was ultimately concluded that closing the Cook Inlet EEZ to commercial salmon fishing would optimize conservation and management of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery when considering costs and benefits of viable management alternatives.

The council voted in December of 2020 to recommend Amendment 14 to the FMP in response to the appeals court ruling.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, in a statement announcing its litigation, said that the council “has vast powers to destroy our clients’ decades-long careers.

“The Constitution says that such significant federal powers must be stewarded by officials who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate,” plaintiffs attorneys said. “This ensures both political accountability and quality control in decision-making The North Pacific Council, as demonstrated by the terrible Amendment 14, has neither.”