A decision that was finalized by federal regulators a couple of months ago is likely to have very negative ramifications for anglers in Cook Inlet, and in my opinion, should be rescinded before it goes into effect during the upcoming salmon season.
In November, a rule was finalized by NOAA Fisheries that prohibits commercial salmon fishing in the federal waters of Cook Inlet during the 2022 salmon season. The area, which is three nautical miles to 200 nautical miles off Alaska, is referred to as the Cook Inlet Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The State of Alaska would continue to manage Cook Inlet salmon fishery sectors within state waters, from the shoreline to three nautical miles out.
The measure will be in place for the 2022 Cook Inlet EEZ commercial salmon fishery. It affects the Cook Inlet drift gillnet fishery, which is the only commercial salmon fishery that operates in the Cook Inlet EEZ. It closes a portion of the historically used fishing area for the Cook Inlet drift gillnet salmon fishery.
Why will it be closed? Because the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to shut the commercial fishery down in December 2020 when it was tasked with picking a new fishery management plan. After the State of Alaska said it wouldn’t manage the fishery alongside the federal government, the council said it had no other option but to close the area entirely.
After the Fishery Management Council unanimously approved the decision, NOAA Fisheries in November 2021 finalized a rule to comply with the decision.
“It was ultimately concluded that closing the Cook Inlet EEZ to commercial salmon fishing optimized conservation and management of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery when considering the costs and benefits of the viable management alternatives,” NOAA Fisheries wrote in a November explanation.
“The closure is consistent with the Council’s longstanding salmon management policy to facilitate salmon management by the State of Alaska,” NOAA Fisheries further explained, adding that the decision “avoids the introduction of an additional management jurisdiction and the associated uncertainty into the complex and interdependent network of Cook Inlet salmon fishery sectors.”
The decision and process leading up to it were so unpopular that federal litigation has already been filed over the decision by three fishermen, as well as a fishing organization. The three plaintiffs in one case, Wes Humbyrd, Robert Wolfe and Dan Anderson, who have fished commercially for decades in Cook Inlet’s federal and state waters, seek a permanent injunction of the NOAA decision.
Also suing against the closure is the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which represents the 570 drift gillnet salmon fishing permit holders in Cook Inlet.
“Closing the federal waters in Upper Cook Inlet will effectively shut down the commercial salmon industry here,” the UCIDA said in a November statement. “The Cook Inlet salmon fishery is unlike many of the other salmon fisheries around Alaska in that a large part of the fishery occurs in federal waters.”
A handful of municipalities are also weighing in on whether to challenge the decision. Alaska cities Kenai and Homer are both said to be filing briefs to the UCIDA’s suit saying that the ramifications of the decision could have very negative consequences for their local economies.
NOAA Fisheries has said that the decision to close the Cook Inlet EEZ to commercial salmon fishing optimizes conservation and management of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery when considering the costs and benefits of the viable management alternatives.
But although the decision may save in management costs, it also potentially costs hundreds of anglers millions of dollars in combined revenue.
According to a 2020 impact statement from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal area makes up about half of the revenue that comes from Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing – around $10 million.
And with this amount of money on the line, you’d think that the NPFM, State of Alaska and NOAA Fisheries should look to find ways to keep the EEZ open during the next salmon season, rather than prevent people from earning a decent living.
All the costs that would go toward management of the federal EEZ would be balanced by the revenue that would be generated by the businesses that depend on fishing-related commerce, such as equipment shops and boat maintenance and repair yards.
By closing the Cook Inlet EEZ to commercial fishing in 2022, officials may save the government a pretty penny, but at the same time they’re preventing the region from benefitting from what’s in the past been a major source of revenue for the surrounding communities.
Until a better solution can be found, the decision to close the EEZ in 2022 can and should be suspended. If not by regulators, then in a court of law.
Managing Editor Mark Nero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org