A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of Cook Inlet commercial fishermen who challenged the federal government's decision to hand management of some Alaska salmon fisheries off to the state.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling Wednesday that sends the case back to district court and will require that federal regulators work with the state on a new management plan.
At the center of the case of federal "under-reach" — a rare accusation in Alaska — is the contention by some commercial fishermen that the state has failed to adequately manage Cook Inlet fishing stocks.
The decision came just after Alaska Gov. Bill Walker asked the federal government — via Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker — to declare this year's haul a "disaster" for Prince William Sound, Kodiak, Chignik and Lower Cook Inlet. Walker is seeking federal disaster relief funds. The federal government granted a similar request by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2012.
Two groups of commercial fishermen — the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund — sued the federal government in 2013, arguing that its deferral to the state violated the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
A three-judge panel agreed.
Ocean fisheries should be managed "by federal rules in the national interest, not managed by a state based on parochial concerns," the ruling said. "We decline the government's invitation to vest in Alaska the very authority that Congress abjured."
Two key issues are at play where the fishermen say that the state has not heeded their concerns. The groups say the state has done little to manage invasive northern pike, a fast-growing carnivorous fish that can rip through infant salmon. And they say the state is failing to properly set salmon escapement limits, the number of fish that make it upstream to spawn.
Federal fisheries management is often based on catch limits. But for salmon, the important number is escapement, because if too few fish spawn, too few fish may return to their home waterway, harming the commercial, subsistence and sport catches. But if the escapement is set too high, many fish go unharvested.
The two groups sued the government in response to a 2012 rule, known as "Amendment 12," that exempted the Cook Inlet area from the federal salmon fisheries management plan in favor of state control.
They argued that commercial sockeye salmon catches have declined 51 percent since 1981 and the state wasn't doing the necessary work to fix the problem.
The United Cook Inlet Drift Association cheered the ruling, and said that by applying federal standards of "conservation, sustainability, prevention of overfishing, and by utilizing the best scientific information available, the salmon resources of Cook Inlet will be sustainable and bountiful for all Alaskans who rely on Cook Inlet salmon for recreation, healthy food, and jobs, for generations to come."
"UCIDA does not want federal management of the Cook Inlet fishery," the group said in a 2015 paper about the case. The group wants the regional fisheries council, along with the state and other interested parties, to write a management plan and "then delegate authority to the state to manage the fishery," the paper said. That's how it's done for the Bering Sea crab, for example.
"We are not asking for anything out of the ordinary, we are only asking that the state be held to the same management standards in Cook Inlet that they have to follow in other areas," the group said.
The federal court agreed in sharp terms, saying that provisions of the law allowing the federal government to defer to the state don't mean it can "shirk" its statutory duties.