Worry for commercial fishermen and Peninsula communities after Cook Inlet fishery closure

Gillnet boat in the ocean with mountains in the background
The 10-0 Council vote shuts down drift gillnet fishing in waters farther than three miles offshore, from the southern tip of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point. (Redoubt Reporter)

Federal managers voted Monday to close a huge swath of Upper Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing, capping a two-year fight over the fate of the fishery and its 500 permit-holders.

Fishermen and representatives from the Kenai Peninsula turned out in droves to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting to oppose the closure and advocate for lighter conservation measures.

But when representatives from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration said the state was unwilling to manage the area’s fisheries alongside the federal government, the council voted unanimously for the closure.

The 10-0 vote shuts down drift gillnet fishing in waters farther than three miles offshore, from the southern tip of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point. Fishermen like Georgie Heaverly of Anchorage said the area is a crucial fishing ground, and the closure will reverberate across industries.

“Fishermen have been leaving the fishery already for the last several years,” she said. “It’s hardly economically viable, and this really is the nail in the coffin.”

RELATED: Over opposition from commercial fisherman, state passes limits to Cook Inlet fisheries

For years, the state of Alaska oversaw the management of salmon in Upper Cook Inlet’s federal waters. But in 2013, United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a commercial fishing advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in an effort to force management back the federal government.

The courts sided with UCIDA in 2017, leaving the council to draft a new salmon management plan. This fall, two years into the process which involves collaborating across many groups of stakeholders, the Dunleavy administration introduced a proposal known as “Alternative 4”: closing the waters completely to commercial salmon fishing.

It was a controversial idea. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, hundreds submitted comments in opposition, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly; the cities of Kenai and Homer; Rep. Ben Carpenter (R-Nikiski) and Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna).

Micciche said he thinks Monday’s council decision will be challenged in court.

Opponents of “Alternative 4” asked the council to return salmon management to the state, incorporating additional federal oversight. But council members rejected fishermens’ pleas for state management after hearing from the Dunleavy administration.

Rachel Baker, a deputy Fish and Game commissioner who serves as the Dunleavy administration’s representative on the council, said the state didn’t want the burden of managing Upper Cook Inlet’s federal waters.

Andy Mezirow, who runs a Seward charter fishing business, is the only council member who lives on the Kenai Peninsula.

He said he was worried about the decision’s impact on his neighbors. But, he added, if the state wouldn’t agree to jointly manage the fishery, he would reluctantly support the closure.

“I’m not an expert on states’ rights,” Mezirow said. “But it seems like almost everyone agrees the state should be the one that’s ultimately managing this fishery.”

One big concern among opponents to the closure is the negative effect it’ll have on seafood processors, who have already been strained by several poor years of fishing. And it’s hard for drift and set-net fisheries to stay open if processors close, said Robert Ruffner, Soldotna resident and former Alaska Board of Fisheries member.

“Our communities are going to suffer pretty heavily, probably more than the numbers reflect in terms of the harvest that occurs out there, because our processors are rapidly becoming the limiting factor in what they can continue to stay open and operate under,” he said.

Homer, in particular, would be hard hit by the decision, according to the council’s report.

Map of cook inlet with area marked in red
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

At least one group of fishermen supported the action: The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which has close ties to Dunleavy’s administration, submitted the lone comment in support of closing the federal waters to fishing.

Executive Director Ben Mohr said he would prefer state management of the fishery than total closure. But after the court’s decision in the UCIDA lawsuit, he saw the closure as the best path forward.

“We weren’t seeking to shut down the commercial fishery or anything like that, that’s not what we’re about,” he said. “It was solely about who manages those fish and defending the state’s primacy to manage our fish and wildlife resources for the benefit of all Alaskans.”

Most other waters in Alaska under federal jurisdiction are closed to commercial salmon fishing.

Baker said at the meeting benefits to other groups might balance out negative effects. Smaller harvests in federal waters could lead to better harvests in other parts of the inlet, like for sportfishing groups, commercial set-netters and northern inlet drift fishermen.

The closure will not go into effect before the 2021 season, since it needs to be approved by the Secretary of the Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Jim Balsiger, the service’s regional administrator, was the one member of the council to abstain from voting Monday.

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