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Feds draft new plan for contentious Cook Inlet salmon fishery

Sean McDermott
NOAA Fisheries is required to draft a new salmon management plan for the federal waters of Cook Inlet — a contentious fishery that's been at the center of multiple lawsuits.

Comments are due this month on a new salmon management plan for the federal waters of Cook Inlet, after the council that oversees fishing there could not agree on a management plan for the fishery and its permit holders earlier this spring.

The plan would establish federal management for the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery that starts three miles offshore, and is the latest step in a years-long debate over management of the contentious fishery, following a lawsuit from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

In response, in 2020, the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to close a large swath of Upper Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. But after another lawsuit, the feds were ordered to start over and come up with a new plan.

At its meeting last month, the council could not agree on a plan after the state said it wouldn’t co-manage the fishery with the feds. Two other options — to close the fishery or do nothing — were deemed illegal by courts.

Members said they worry federal management of the fishery will be too restrictive for fishermen. But with no other options viable, NOAA Fisheries says it has to move forward with that plan, anyway. The feds were ordered under court order to have a plan in place by 2024.

Before it can put a plan in action, NOAA Fisheries needs to hear from the public — a step required in the federal process. It’s holding a public hearing next Thursday, May 18 at 5 p.m., and accepting comments on the decision through 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 25.

Comments can be submitted online or by mail.

“We will consider written and oral comments received at the public hearing when preparing the amendment and implementing regulations,” the feds said in their announcement.

When the federal council deliberated on the Cook Inlet plan in 2020, dozens of fishermen and Kenai Peninsula advocates delivered testimony to encourage the feds to keep the fishery open. This spring, with many fishermen giving up on the inlet, just a handful showed up.

Separately, council member and fishing guide Andy Mezirow and NOAA Fisheries are holding a meeting at the Seward Public Library on Thursday, May 11 from 4-6 p.m. about the new recreational quota entity program, for halibut fishing guides. That program, included in last year’s federal omnibus bill, allows charter operators in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska to buy halibut quota from willing commercial fishermen — a program designed to give charter fishermen more fishing opportunity in years of lower halibut abundance.

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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