Cook Inlet Fishermen Challenge End to Federal Waters Fishery

United Cook Inlet Drift Association
Image via United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

A collective of commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska have mounted a new legal effort to restore their right to fish in the federal waters of Cook Inlet.

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Anchorage in early February by United Cook Inlet Drift Association and Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund against the National Marine Fisheries Service contends that NOAA Fisheries’ approval of the fishery closure is arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.

The litigation comes in the wake of a decision of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in late 2021 to close those federal waters to commercial fishing.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that the Ninth Circuit Court held previously that NOAA Fisheries is required to produce a fishery management plan to govern the Cook Inlet salmon fishery, as the stated purpose of the Magnuson Act is to ensure that “federal fisheries are to be governed by federal rules in the national interest, not managed by a state based on parochial concerns.”

More support for the plaintiffs came from a legal brief filed by the Alaska Salmon Alliance and a memorandum in support filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which argues that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s action to close Cook Inlet federal waters to the commercial salmon fishery was unconstitutional.

The council’s jurisdiction includes managing fisheries in federal waters off the coast of Alaska, and the council chose to exercise that authority by permanently closing Cook Inlet’s federal commercial salmon fishery as of December 2021.

The plaintiffs said in their lawsuit that closure, embodied in a measure called Amendment 14 and in its implementing regulation, destroyed a decades-long careers of the plaintiffs and those of many other fishermen.

In a related declaration brief, United Cook Inlet Drift Association President David Martin, a veteran commercial harvester from Ninilchik, Alaska, argued that closure of the federal waters would cause irreparable harm in the summer of 2022, with the scheduled start of the fishery on June 20.

Harvest in the exclusive economic zone is essential for the proper management of the fishery, Martin said.

“There has never been an attempt by the state of Alaska to manage the commercial fishery only in state waters without the benefit of commercial fishing and test-boat fishing in the EEZ and the state has no present management measures in place to address this scenario,” he said. “Amendment 14 will essentially put commercial fishing in Cook Inlet out of business, which will in turn put me out of business and make my current way of life unviable.”

Martin also said there would be finance harm to support businesses, including commercial processors, fishing related jobs and communities on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and that even the salmon resource itself would be harmed from negative effects of gross over-escapements of salmon.