Home Trade association Alaska Diary | Yard side with Cook Inlet salmon dinghies, reopening of disputed area

Alaska Diary | Yard side with Cook Inlet salmon dinghies, reopening of disputed area

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The management of Cook Inlet is again in question after a district court judge overthrows the rule that would have closed federal waters of the inlet in the commercial salmon fishery.

The summary judgement, released Tuesday, sides with plaintiffs from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a trade association representing the approximately 500 driftnet license holders in Cook Inlet. UCIDA sued the National Marine Fisheries Service last year after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the body that manages fishing in federal waters, decided to approve a rule that would close the federal waters of Cook Inlet to any commercial salmon fishery.

Judge Joshua Kindred agreed to UCIDA’s request to overturn the rule closing the waters, saying the rule the Fisheries Department had established was arbitrary, capricious and based on politics. This is partly because in Cook Inlet, unlike other locations, the closure only applied to commercial salmon fishing, not recreational fishing.

“While the state is certainly a stakeholder and should have a say in rule making, and federal agencies and state governments need to work together to effect management of salmon stocks, it seems here that the state had a paramount interest in the chosen alternative,” the judgment states. “Furthermore, the record clearly establishes that (the chosen rule) was intended as a thinly veiled attempt to secure an absence of federal management, which conflicts with the position of the Ninth Circuit in (the earlier case of UCIDA.)”

This is not the first time that UCIDA has gone to court over this issue. It all started more than a decade ago, when the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council passed an amendment to its management plan that delegated management of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery entirely to the state. UCIDA, which disagreed with some aspects of state management, sued and said the decision was illegal; in 2016, a panel of federal judges agreed.

[Earlier coverage: Commercial fishermen outraged by state proposal to close much of Cook Inlet]

The rule came back before the board in 2017, which took nearly three years to come up with a new analysis and set of potential management options. Fishermen and state and federal government officials worked together in a committee to come up with options. However, during the council discussion, Alaska state officials publicly stated for the first time that they would not accept any form of delegated management. The council instead opted in December 2020 to close the fishing area entirely.

Federal waters are economically important for fishing. Depending on the year, about half the value of the drift fleet’s salmon catch would come from federal waters, which would have been prohibited under the rule.

Erik Huebsch, vice president of UCIDA, said he was not surprised by the decision but was pleased with its thoroughness.

“It was a very thorough decision, and I thought it was important and I was really happy to see it,” he said.

However, what this means for fisheries management is not entirely clear. Huebsch says he doesn’t think it takes them back to square one – after all, affected groups and government officials have been working on management options for nearly three years – but it now has to come back to the council.

Representatives of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game could not be reached for comment on the matter. On Wednesday, Fish and Game announced Thursday the opening of the Upper Cook Inlet drift fishery — including in federal waters — known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ.

“Please check with the appropriate federal agency regarding the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) ruling,” the announcement read.

A National Marine Fisheries Service representative said the agency would not comment.

Huebsch said UCIDA doesn’t want to see entirely federal management of the fishery, but the organization has long argued that the state manage the fishery politically, in favor of sport fishing. He said this new decision helps to confirm that UCIDA is right when it comes to fisheries management.

“The court has once again ruled that UCIDA’s position on salmon management here in Cook Inlet is legitimate and what the NPFMC and the State of Alaska have done is illegal,” he said. -he declares. “The court has once again ruled in our favor, and this decision is even stronger than the previous one.”

Although the summary judgment overturns the rule closing the federal waters of Cook Inlet, the judge dismissed part of UCIDA’s claims related to the State Environmental Protection Act. UCIDA argued the rule violated NEPA because the federal government failed to file an environmental impact statement, but the judge said the group failed to establish why it was necessary.

The case was effectively two rolled into one: A second group of fishermen filed their own lawsuit against the Fisheries Department last year on the same subject, but making a different legal argument. The second case argued that the rule was illegal because of the status of members of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council under the constitution. The judge dismissed the second case, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing to present the argument.

The Upper Cook Inlet salmon season is just beginning and sockeye salmon are starting to arrive in the Kasilof River. As of Thursday, between the northern district net makers and the drifting fleet, only 14,943 salmon had been caught, including 13,418 sockeye. Fish and Game has yet to begin counting sockeye salmon on the Kenai River, but the count on the Kasilof River is rising, with 36,291 sockeye passing sonar on Wednesday, according to Fish and Game.

Contact Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].