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In victory for commercial fishermen, court orders Cook Inlet fishery to reopen

Redoubt Reporter
The area in question starts three miles offshore and extends south from Kalgin Island.

Cook Inlet drift fishermen can fish the federal waters of the inlet this summer after all.

That’s after a district court judge shot down a federal rule that would have closed a large part of the inlet to commercial salmon fishing — which fishermen said would have been a death knell for the fishery and the 500 drift permit-holders who fish there.

One of those permit-holders is Erik Huebsch, of Kasilof. He’s vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which filed the suit. And he said he’s pleased.

"Opening the EEZ is vital to the fleet," Huebsch said. "Without opening the EEZ, the drift fishery is really not viable. That’s where we go to catch fish.”

The EEZ is the inlet’s exclusive economic zone. And it’s the federal waters that start three nautical miles offshore, south of Kalgin Island.

For years, management of that EEZ fell to the state. But in 2013, UCIDA filed a lawsuit in an effort to have more oversight from the federal government.

The courts sided with UCIDA, and the council that manages fishing in federal waters was tasked with drafting a new salmon management plan. When the state told the council it wasn’t interested in co-managing the fishery with the feds, the council decided to close that part of the inlet to commercial salmon fishing entirely.

That sparked another lawsuit. Cook Inlet drift fishermen argued that a closure does not count as a management plan.

In Tuesday's decision, Judge Joshua Kindred largely agreed with the fishermen.

He said the federal closure was arbitrary and capricious and that the closure did not comply with national standards — including that it was based on political compromise and not on science. He added the urgency of the impending season meant it was necessary to vacate the rule immediately.

On Wednesday evening, Fish and Game said it would reopen the fishery Thursday.

“Any vessel fishing for salmon in Cook Inlet will be regulated by the State of Alaska under the laws of the State of Alaska,” said Brian Marston, Fish and Game's area manager for Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, in a Wednesday recording.

Huebsch said the decision verifies that UCIDA's position on salmon management is the right one.

“This is the second court ruling we’ve had in our favor," he said.

The state of Alaska was an intervening defendant in the case. Representatives from the Alaska Department of Law and NOAA Fisheries declined to comment.

The cities of Kenai, Homer and Soldotna all filed amicus briefs supporting the fishermen in the suit last year, arguing that the economic impact to their cities if there was a closure would be severe.

Ken Castner, the mayor of Homer, said this week would normally be the opener for this part of the inlet.

And he said those early salmon deliveries are really important.

“We need those deliveries down here, not only for the canneries that operate out of Homer, but also for all the restaurants that kind of stock their refrigerators and freezers with these early Cook Inlet fish," he said.

An impact statement from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council said the federal area made up just under half of the revenue that comes from Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing, around $10 million. Homer has the highest average ex-vessel value from that part of the inlet, at about $2,647,402.

“And we really bore the brunt of the economic loss in that displacement of the fishing fleets that are down here," Castner said. "And it’s a very large fleet that fishes out of Homer.

He’s pleased with the court’s decision.

But the judge didn’t side with the plaintiffs on all counts.

Another case, filed by three Cook Inlet drift fishermen by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, was consolidated with the UCIDA case. Those fishermen argued members of the council overstepped their authority and that the composition of the council was formed illegally.

The judge dismissed their argument, saying they could not find enough standing to back up those claims.

The judge also rejected one of UCIDA’s arguments — that the rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act. He said the fishermen did not flesh out that argument enough to make a convincing NEPA claim.

Beyond this season, the feds will have to work on a new management plan for the fishery. In his decision, the judge sent the matter back the matter to NOAA Fisheries for next steps.

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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