Cook Inlet salmon plan back in front of federal council in April

  • Cook Inlet drift salmon fishermen have been successful in their lawsuit challenging the federal delegation of management to the State of Alaska, but the hard work at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is just getting started as a committee of stakeholders has yet to be chosen. The April meeting in Anchorage will start to flesh out more of the details of crafting a federal management plan for the area. (Photo/Steven Kazlowski/AlaskaStock)

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will continue its discussion of who should manage Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, and how, at its April meeting in Anchorage.

The council is continuing court-ordered work to develop a federal fishery management plan, or FMP, for the salmon fisheries currently managed by the state in Cook Inlet, including creation of a new salmon management committee.

From October 2017 to this February, the council solicited proposals regarding the membership of the new committee and the work it might do. Those are expected to be made public around March 16, and the council will discuss them at its April meeting in Anchorage.

According to information provided by the council, the comment period generated 33 responses, 25 nominations or applications for participation on the new salmon committee. Those nominations won’t be considered right away, however.

The council is also expected to issue the formal call for salmon committee members at the April meeting, and a decision on membership won’t come until after that comment period.

The committee and other work to re-tool Cook Inlet salmon management all stems from a lawsuit brought by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, that challenged the council decision in 2011 to formally remove the Cook Inlet, Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound salmon fisheries from the federal management plan.

The council is now working to write a Cook Inlet management plan at the directive of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed a U.S. District Court of Alaska judge’s decision to dismiss UCIDA’s lawsuit in 2016.

UCIDA’s suit asserted that federal managers should retain oversight of certain salmon fisheries currently managed by the State of Alaska to ensure it complies with the Magnuson-Stevens Act national standards.

Those fisheries occur partially in federal waters but have historically managed by the state. The other areas of the state were not included in the federal order, and stakeholder groups from those regions have said they would prefer to largely remain under state management.

Eventually, the council is expected to develop a management plan that addresses what Cook Inlet management work is delegated to the state, and how that delegation will work.

Right now, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, largely based on escapement goals that requires day-to-day decision-making that proponents of the status quo have argued makes it an ill fit for federal management.

ADFG monitors salmon harvests in the marine and freshwaters, operates weirs and sonars to count they fish as the swim upstream, and makes in-season management decisions to open or close fisheries based on that data.

Plans devised by the state Board of Fisheries outline many of the tools and decisions ADFG managers can use, including setting some openings and closures, and limiting commercial nets and sportfishing gear.

Federal managers have said the state’s ability to use in-season information to run the fishery is a primary reason why the authority has been delegated. Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, including those who brought the lawsuit forward, have protested some of the restrictions they faced under the state management system and decisions by the board.

They’ve argued that some of the actions by the state managers and the board conflict with the Magnuson-Stevens Act standards such as attaining optimum yield and that plans lack accountability measures when standards aren’t met.

The new salmon committee will have to consider how that management structure could change, and look at various options for management systems, including continuing to delegate management to ADFG or having federal fisheries managers handle it directly.

The council will eventually also have to consider how other marine mammals are affected by any changes, and a staff report is expected to analyze how the West Coast arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service handles managing salmon fisheries there.

According to a written update from NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, the council will hear from NMFS regarding the scope of the new salmon committee, and receive a report from state and federal managers analyzing the proposals submitted for the new committee’s formation. The court is requiring updates every four months from NMFS on progress toward crafting the FMP.

The council is also expected to hear from staff about how the Magnuson-Stevens Act applies the new management plan, and whether the management plan will apply to the sport and state-waters components of the fishery.

In his most recent update to the court and stakeholders, Balsiger said state and federal scientists and other agency staff are working on putting together the information the council will need to develop status determination for Cook Inlet salmon stocks. Several Cook Inlet Northern District king salmon stocks as well as Susitna sockeye are currently listed as stocks of concern by the Board of Fisheries.

Discussion of salmon management is supposed to begin on the first day of the upcoming council meeting, April 4, and there will be opportunity for public comment at the meeting.

The council is also taking written public comments via its online portal through March 30.

Attorneys’ fees dispute

Although the council is working to develop the new management plan, the lawsuit is not completely resolved. Now, the parties involved are disputing who should pay attorneys’ fees.

Plaintiffs UCIDA and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund filed for reimbursement in October 2017, asking for the federal government to pay nearly $500,000 in attorneys’ fees, as well as the cost of an independent report reviewing the state’s use of escapement goals in commercial fisheries.

The federal agency engaged in the lawsuit has disputed that they should pay them, and the issue has not yet been resolved. An updated March 2018 filing added more than $30,000 to the request for work in 2018, bringing the total to more than $540,000.

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Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
03/14/2018 - 1:12pm

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