Fishermen will still drift net Upper Cook Inlet’s federal waters this summer. But it may be their last season there, after the body that manages the fishery moved to close it to commercial fishing late last year.
First, the amended plan has to be approved by the feds. NOAA Fisheries is now asking for public comment on the proposal through July.
Robert Ruffner, with the Alaska Salmon Alliance, asked the Kenai City Council this week to again oppose closure of the fishery.
"The real ask that we have here is that we make some meaningful comments from our local communities to this particular issue," he said.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets policy in Alaska’s federal waters. Last December, the council voted to close part of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing ― an area that starts three miles offshore and extends from the southern tip of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point.
Those waters have been managed by the state for a while. But the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a commercial fishing advocacy group, disputed that management in a lawsuit several years ago, asking the feds to have some oversight.
The council debated several management options, but when the state said it wouldn’t manage the fishery jointly with the feds, it opted to close the federal waters fishery entirely. The state waters portion would remain open.
Local leaders and municipalities, including the city of Kenai, testified about the economic harm the closure could have on their communities. Commercial fishing advocates said the closure’s the final nail in the coffin for a fishery that’s already on its last legs.
Ruffner encouraged the city council to read through the fishery council’s decision.
“A little teaser for you maybe is that part of their analysis was in order to close the fishery, they had to have no significant impact to the communities," Ruffner said.
In its analysis, the fishery management council said it considered the economic impacts of the change but determined communities were dependent on other fisheries as well, like the state waters just off the coast. The closure might lead to some “redistribution of benefits,” the report said, which could offset impacts to those communities.
Kenai city council member Teea Winger said she doesn’t agree with that analysis.
“As a business owner, one thing I found with commercial fishing, owning a restaurant ― when they had a rough year, we had a rough year," she said.
Fishermen will still be out in that part of the inlet this summer. It takes the federal government a long time to pass regulations like a fishery management plan — often a year or more.
Next, the amended management plan is headed to the desk of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for approval. Ruffner says he thinks there's a chance the secretary looks at the record of comments and decides not to approve the decision. It has happened in the past, though it’s not particularly common.
A last resort for fishermen if the secretary does approve the proposal would be to appeal the decision in court.