Fishermen, state, in flux after circuit court overturns state control of Cook Inlet salmon

Sep 29, 2016

A three-judge panel at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the area needs federal oversight. But no one knows exactly what that will mean.

United Cook Inlet Drift Association Vice-President Erik Huebsch talks about a court ruling in his commercial fishing organization’s favor on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016 in Kasilof, Alaska.
Credit Rashah McChesney

In Cook Inlet, managing the salmon runs for commercial, sport and subsistence interests is so controversial, it’s often called a fish war.

A group of commercial fishermen who think the state is mismanaging the fisheries, have won the latest battle.

A three-judge panel at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the area needs federal oversight. But no one knows exactly what that will mean.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund say that instead of addressing habitat problems or fighting invasive species that eat salmon in Cook Inlet – the state simply restricted commercial fishing.

So the fishing groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service. They argued against a 2011 decision to remove several Alaska salmon fisheries — including Cook Inlet — from federal management and transfer the responsibility of managing salmon to the state.  A three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

For commercial fishermen like Brian Harrison, in Homer, the court’s decision is a victory. But, he’s not sure what to expect going forward.

“I think we are as in the dark as anyone else. The layman drifters here in Homer. We are hopeful that this will be a place to start to help turn around this fishery and to manage this resource in a way that science tells us is the best way to manage it and not politicians,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s not the only one in the dark. Federal and state fisheries managers will have to work together on a new plan for how to manage the various fisheries.  But, no one is sure what that plan will look like.

“The United States has made it very clear they don’t want to manage salmon. The state has made it very clear that we don’t need the U.S. government to help us manage salmon,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner Sam Cotten.

Fish and Game is responsible for day-to-day management of the state’s fisheries.  There is a federal fishery management plan for most of the state, but Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries are specifically excluded from that plan.

Now that a new plan has to be written to include Cook Inlet, it’s not even clear which fishermen are going to be covered under it.

Typically federally fishery management plans don’t include sport or personal use fishing. But because salmon spend their lives in rivers and in the oceans, federal oversight could expand to include them both.

Cotten said, he doesn’t know which groups will be covered under a new plan.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions before we even get to the design of a management plan,” Cotten said.

Cotten said, the National Marine Fisheries Service, or the state, could appeal.

Cotten doesn’t think there will be a new management plan in place in time for next summer’s fishing season. And, it’s not clear if the ruling allows the state to continue managing the fisheries without a federal plan.

“We do not want to have any areas closed. Most of the area that the people drift in, is federal waters,” Cotten said.

Erik Huebsch, Vice President of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association,  said his group wants to see the state continue to manage the fisheries — but under federal guidelines.

No matter what’s next, Huebsch said he thinks federal oversight will simplify salmon management and that might help calm Cook Inlet’s fish wars.

“It’ll level the playing field, everyone will have the same set of rules to play by. I think that will go a long way to calming some of the angst and some of the contention that goes on over resource management in this area,” Huebsch said.

Federal fisheries regulators said developing a new plan could take years.