Opposition mounts to proposal to close part of Cook Inlet to salmon fishing

Nov 23, 2020

The area in red is Cook Inlet's exclusive economic zone. The pending fishery management plan will apply to that stretch of water.
Credit NOAA

The southern half of Cook Inlet will have a new fishery management plan in under a month. Commercial fishermen are organizing with the help of their city councils to make sure that plan is not the proposed “Alternative 4,” which would close off federal waters south of Kalgin Island to commercial salmon fishing.

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel is bringing forth a resolution to oppose such a closure at a special Kenai City Council meeting tonight.

“I hate to be overdramatic in a lot of cases, but you could almost call it a deathknell for drift fishing in Cook Inlet,” he said.

Fishery management plans like the one being developed govern federal waters, or exclusive economic zones (EEZs)— in the case of the inlet, the waters south of Kalgin Island and further than three miles offshore. Those waters were managed by the state until 2017, when a court sided with two Cook Inlet fishermen’s associations that the area should be managed by the federal government.

After that decision, the National Marine Fisheries Service and North Pacific Fishery Management Council got to work on a new FMP.

The council met in October to discuss two viable FMP alternatives, one which would delegate management to the state with federal oversight, and another which would give the federal government management of the southern portion of the inlet.

But another alternative was added at that meeting, called “Alternative 4.” That plan would lead to an extended closure of the fisheries in the inlet’s EEZ.

UCIDA Executive Director Roland Maw said that alternative was not introduced until the meeting’s public comment period had already ended. Prior, a proposal to close the EEZ under certain salmon stock conditions was incorporated into another alternative.

“I just think this alternative four is way too late," he said. "The state has had two years to put it on the record, they failed to do that. They put it on the record at such a late date that it’s very difficult to realize the full biological and economic impacts of that.”

A representative from Fish and Game could not be reached before airtime.

A full writeup of the alternative and others was included in a public review draft that came out earlier this month. In the document, Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the closure would lead to increased escapement of sockeye and cohoes to the northern part of the inlet, ultimately benefiting sports and personal-use fisheries there. The department also cited “complex, intertwined state-federal joint management” as a benefit of closures.

Maw worries that closing the inlet’s EEZ would cause huge economic damages to the Homer area, both for fishermen and processors. So does Robert Ruffner, a former member of the Board of Fisheries and resident of Soldotna.

“Here in Cook Inlet, we don’t have a very long salmon fishing season. And predominantly, those early catches of salmon occur in these federal waters," he said. "So those are high quality fish, high-value fish that are delivered to processors that extend their season by a couple of weeks. If those waters are closed, and we have one of our larger runs come back, it’s going to be very difficult for the processors to be able to handle the fish in a compressed time frame and the quality is going to be diminished.”

Ruffner thinks it is likely that representatives from other states on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council will look to the state of Alaska to determine which alternative it chooses. But he thinks comments from municipalities like Kenai might provide some alternative perspectives for the council.

Seward Mayor Christy Terry said the council might put something on its Dec. 7 meeting agenda, but that the matter came to the council’s attention too late to be added to the agenda for its Monday night meeting. Same goes for Homer, though Mayor Ken Castner said he is going to talk about the issue in his mayor’s report tonight.

Maw said a representative from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will also bring a similar resolution forth for consideration by the borough.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is taking public comment on the matter until 5 p.m. Friday. As of Monday, over 80 commenters had voiced opposition to Alternative 4, including representatives from the Kenai Peninsula Economic District and the Old Believer village of Nikolaevsk. Most advocated for the option that would delegate management to the state with federal oversight.

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Update Tuesday, Nov. 24:

The Kenai City Council voted yesterday to oppose “Alternative 4.”

Seward and Homer also heard comments on the matter at their city council meetings Monday night. Both cities discussed taking a stance on the matter at future meetings.