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Citing economic concerns, cities will weigh in on fishing suit

Sabine Poux/KDLL

Two Kenai Peninsula cities are weighing in on a lawsuit over the closure of part of Cook Inlet to salmon fishing. 

Kenai and Homer both are submitting amicus briefs to a suit from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association that attempts to stop the closure before it takes hold next summer. The cities say the ramifications of the decision on their local economies could be intense.

“If council was interested in participating in the lawsuit, I think that would be our narrow focus," said Kenai City Attorney Scott Bloom. "That, ‘Look, as a city, we were never consulted. We think there is a large impact to the city and the fishermen that participate in the fishery.'"

The lawsuit is over the decision to close part of Cook Inlet’s federal waters to commercial salmon fishing, estimated to impact the 500 permit holders who fish from the southern tip of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point.

Then and now, the decision has been unpopular among commercial fishermen and Kenai Peninsula cities. But members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to shut the commercial fishery down anyway last December, when they were tasked with picking a new fishery management plan. After the state 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.

Two separate lawsuits have been filed against the federal government since.

The first is from several Cook Inlet fishermen and the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation. That suit argues that the composition of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is illegal, and therefore the council does not have the authority to make decisions like the one it did last year.

“That’s sort of not an argument I think the city has an interest in," Bloom said. "That's sort of a technical, legal argument.”

The second is from the drift association, UCIDA. The association says the closure does not count as a management plan and that it could really hurt the fishery and its communities.

An impact statement from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council said last year the federal area makes up just under half of the revenue that comes from Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing – around $10 million.

Those landings are spread out across the peninsula. Homer has the highest average ex-vessel value from that part of the inlet, at about $2,647,402. Kenai’s ex vessel value is about $938,453. Those estimates come from annual averages for the years between 2009 and 2018.

Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said the closure will have a huge impact on the city. Most of the permit holders in the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery are from Homer.

“We are continually challenged with the ups and downs of harvests and how it affects our fleet because that directly affects the community," he said.

He said it goes beyond the fishermen, tenders and processors that actively fish the area. 

"Of course there’s the secondary revenue that’s generated from commercial fishermen that are working on their vessels during the wintertime to prepare them for the end season," he said. "All of those things play into the economy. Not just Homer’s economy but the peninsula in general.”

Advocates of the closure plan said fishermen who typically fish that part of the inlet can take their business elsewhere, like closer to shore. They also suspect a redistribution of the resource could balance out some of the economic losses.

The state of Alaska also filed to join the lawsuit on the side of the federal government.

In an emailed statement, Aaron Sadler, a spokesperson from the state’s Department of Law, said that was because “Alaska has significant interests in this dispute and is moving to intervene in order to fully and meaningfully represent those interests in all phases of the litigation.”

The state was an advocate for closing the inlet at the council meeting last year. Unlike the cities, the state would be joining the case.

Bloom said Kenai will file its brief in February. He says UCIDA has asked for expedited consideration of the case, in anticipation of the closure that will go into effect in 2022.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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