Federal Fisheries Managers Close Lower Cook Inlet EEZ to Commercial Harvesters

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council this week heard extensive testimony opposed to closing off the exclusive economic zero to commercial salmon fishing, then voted to do so anyhow by a vote of 10-0, with one council member abstaining.

That was Jim Balsiger, regional administrator for Alaska for NOAA Fisheries, who said he chose not to participate in the vote in large part because of anticipated litigation over the outcome.

“I also thought,” said Balsiger, “that the council action did not reflect the request of the 230 public commenting letters or the oral comment from 30 people who testified at the (virtual) meeting. There was a failure to communicate with the interested party who advocated for an action that the council could not legally take.”

NPFMC members took final action on the issue to comply with a 2015 court ordered deadline to produce a salmon management plan for Cook Inlet’s EEZ, which lies beyond three miles from shore.

According to Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the alternative sought by commercial harvesters would have resulted in a situation in which there would be complex dual federal and state management systems in Cook Inlet. “The state of Alaska is unwilling to accept delegated management authority,” she told the council. Several council members, while visibly unhappy with the options that remained, then settled on the alternative which cut off the commercial fleet from all but state waters.

The only testimony in favor of the alternative approved came from Ben Mohr, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

The council also heard from representatives for the city of Kenai, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and state Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, all of whom spoke to the dire socio-economic impact the council’s decision would have on their communities.

Dave Martin, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the trade group representing the drift gillnet fleet in Cook Inlet, said that UCEDA would have to challenge the council’s decision, but first wanted to see what the reaction would be from National Marine Fisheries service and the federal Department of Commerce.

Martin also said he is extremely disappointed in the administration of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy. “This administration does not want to manage the fishery in Cook Inlet as laid out by the Magnuson-Steven Act and to protect the economics of local communities,” he said.