Commercial fishermen are going to court in an attempt to keep Cook Inlet open to salmon fishing. That’s following a controversial decision by the feds to close a large swath of Upper Cook Inlet that’s long been managed by the state and is an important area for drift gillnet permit holders.
The decision to close the federal Cook Inlet salmon fishery was approved by the feds last week but was first proposed last December by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets policy in Alaska’s federal waters. The Dunleavy administration testified that the state wasn’t interested in co-managing the fishery and the council opted to close the federal waters to salmon fishing entirely ― an area that starts three miles offshore and extends from the southern tip of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point.
Cook Inlet drift fishermen warn that decision could be a death knell for the fishery. And now, three permit holders are suing NOAA Fisheries, arguing members of the council overstepped their authority.
They’re being represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based law firm that specializes in private property rights. Attorney Michael Poon says their argument will rest on constitutional arguments and case law.
“I think it’s clear that if you can issue a regulation that can wipe out people’s lives, people's careers, things they’ve invested their lives in, that counts as a significant enough power that you have to have some sort of accountability," he said.
Most of the members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are nominated by their states’ governors and appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Others are fisheries officials from those states and NOAA Fisheries.
The suit argues the composition of the council was formed illegally, and that members should be appointed and removed by the President.
But Poon says they’re not necessarily trying to break the council up. They take issue with the closure of the fishery known as Amendment 14.
“Our aim in this suit is to get the vacatur of Amendment 14 and get our clients back on the water," he said.
NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Julie Fair says the agency is not commenting on the litigation.
A related suit is being filed by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a gear group that represents commercial fishermen in the region.
The association’s Roland Maw says it applied to tack its complaint onto a legal fight that dates back to 2013.
In that suit, UCIDA argued it was wrong that Cook Inlet’s federal waters were being managed by the state and that the feds should have more oversight over the fishery.
The court agreed, and asked the federal council to come up with another fishery management plan. The decision to close part of the fishery was the fishery management council’s answer.
Now, UCIDA’s arguing that a closure does not count as a management plan. Maw says it plans to file its legal complaint later this month.
UCIDA and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund are also appealing another case about the management of the fishery by the state. A hearing on that appeal will be held in December in state court.
The ex-vessel value of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery was almost $19 million in 2021.There are almost 570 drift gillnet permit holders in the inlet, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.