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Cook Inlet plan back on the table next week

Homer has the highest average ex-vessel value from the federal waters of Upper Cook Inlet, which will be impacted by the council's decision.
Sean McDermott
Homer has the highest average ex-vessel value from the federal waters of Upper Cook Inlet — the area that will be impacted by the council's decision.

The federal council that voted to close a large part of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing in 2020 is slated to choose a new management plan for the fishery next week, after a federal court said it was illegal to shut it down last year.

It’s the latest in a long battle over management of the contentious fishery.

But Homer fisherman Malcom Milne, who represents Cook Inlet commercial fishermen as president of the North Pacific Fisheries Association, said many fishermen have moved on.

“Most of the fishermen that I know that have fished in Upper Cook Inlet have left the fishery and gone to other fisheries,” Milne said. “And at this point, I think people are sort of just throwing up their hands and giving up on it.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council manages fishing in Alaska’s federal waters.

Three years ago, responding to a lawsuit from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, it voted to close a large swath of Upper Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. The closure applied to Cook Inlet’s federal waters — which start three miles offshore, south of Kalgin Island. That area is where drift fishermen say they catch a majority of their fish.

The closure was controversial and UCIDA sued, once again, to overturn the decision. The court sided with them in June and the state reopened the fishery just as the 2022 season was starting up.

But that was just a temporary fix. And next week, the federal fishing council will consider four possible ways to move forward — though only two are legally possible.

One, the council could do nothing (Alternative 1). But the court ruled that’s not a viable option.

Another would delegate management of the fishery to the feds (Alternative 3) and another still would set up a system of federal management with some management delegated to the state (Alternative 2) — but the state has said it refuses to co-manage the fishery with the feds. That’s why the council went with the final option (Alternative 4) back in 2020, which closed the fishery down completely.

But that option, while listed in the council’s packet, is no longer possible after the court’s ruling.

The council hasn’t selected a preferred alternative. But it will review the analysis and recommend a preferred alternative at its meeting next week, according to NPFMC documents.

"This amendment is being considered under an accelerated timeline, in order to be responsive to the District Court,” the documents read. After the council makes a decision, it would still have to go through the federal process, which could take a year.

Milne said regardless of what the council chooses next week, the fishery is suffering from what he said is a management mess. Commercial fishermen are struggling to make a living in the inlet and fewer processors are sticking around in Kenai and Homer.

“The best option for us would be to go back in time and erase everything that’s happened in the last 12 years,” Milne said. “But that’s obviously impossible.”

The council is also taking a look at regulations of salmon bycatch next week, including a potential hard cap on chum bycatch.

Comments are due to the council Monday, April 3 at 5 p.m. The council’s meetings start next Thursday, April 6. Find more information here.

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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