The council that controls fishing in most federal waters off Alaska on Monday closed a large chunk of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing.
The decision came despite a wall of opposition from commercial fishermen and community and state leaders who said the move threatens seafood processors on the Kenai Peninsula and hundreds of fishing operations.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council accepted the proposal, presented to the council by the Dunleavy administration in October, to close federal waters starting 3 miles offshore.
Stretching from Homer to Ninilchik off the southern Kenai Peninsula, the waters are where some boats fish exclusively, fishermen said, and it’s where the commercial driftnet fleet typically lands about half its salmon.
The fleet, consisting of more than 500 permit-holders, can continue to fish in state waters within 3 miles of the shore, though fishermen have said they will have little room left because they can’t go near commercial setnets that can extend up to 1.5 miles off the beach.
[Earlier coverage: Commercial fishermen outraged by state proposal to close much of Cook Inlet]
The state has managed salmon fishing in the waters for decades, but two groups representing commercial fishermen sued to challenge the state’s management in 2013, leading the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to mandate a federal takeover in the federal waters by the end of this year.
Two other options before the council on Monday — federal oversight and state management with federal oversight — would create dual systems in Cook Inlet as fishermen move from federal- to state-managed waters, and would not support efficient, accurate management, said Rachel Baker, a member of the council representing the state’s interests as deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The “state of Alaska is unwilling to accept delegated management authority,” Baker said.
The state’s position that it would not share management left council members with no good alternatives, they said, as they also did not support sole federal management.
Council members including Nicole Kimball — with the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, and an appointee of Gov. Mike Dunleavy — acknowledged there would be negative impacts on many Alaskans.
“I feel truly like we are trying to choose the best of all terrible options,” Kimball said.
The proposal received more than 250 comments, most from fishermen supporting state-federal management.
Only one commenter, Kenai River Sportfishing Association, expressed support for the state’s option. The group was founded by Bob Penney, a large financial supporter of Dunleavy’s 2018 election, but has said it had nothing to do with the state’s measure and it does not believe Penney was involved in the decision.
Ben Mohr, the association’s executive director, said the council answered the question of who can best manage the state’s salmon resources.
“This was an important move in affirming Alaskans’ sovereignty over our salmon resources,” Mohr said.
After a reporter shared news of the council’s decision, Penney, a real estate developer and sportfishing advocate, said Monday evening that he had nothing to do with the state’s proposal.
He said the state is world-renowned for its success in fishery management, and he supports decisions that put the fish first.
“The most important thing coming through today is the state will maintain that same control, and they are there to protect the resource, and whatever there is to have, let’s share it with sport fishermen and commercial fishermen,” he said.
“I say today, the fish won,” he said.
Fishery councilman Andy Mezirow, who is from Seward, said he feels for friends who will be impacted by a closure.
But he said Baker made a strong argument about the problems that could be created if the state can’t independently manage the fishery in federal waters.
”There is no good answer,” he said, adding that he “reluctantly” supports the state’s proposal.
Where the federal waters are located is a complex area used by fish bound for rivers across the inlet, and a management mistake in those waters could have devastating consequences for some stocks, some council members said.
Opponents of the measure, including commercial setnetters that could potentially benefit from the closure with more fish to catch, expressed concern that the shutdown could sharply reduce the overall salmon catch, leading to the elimination of seafood processors and contributing to the death of the industry in the inlet.
Paul Ostrander, city manager for Kenai, said the city council there held a special meeting and voted against the state’s measure because of the economic damage it could cause.
“It effectively eliminates the economic viability of the fishery” when it’s already struggling to survive after years of falling harvest numbers, Ostrander said.
“From my perspective, (the council) just asked for a lawsuit,” said Tim Dillon, president of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
He said the commercial driftnet fishery employs more than 10,000 people and is worth tens of millions of dollars each year as the catch supports fishermen, processors, marine repair shops, cargo transporters and others.
“It’s really a shock,” Dillon said. “It’s a big, big deal.”
Four Alaska lawmakers submitted comments saying they opposed the state’s proposal, including Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski.
“It’s a shortsighted decision,” Carpenter said after the vote. “I’m disappointed that’s what they decided.”
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna and an inlet driftnet fisherman, told the council he opposes the state’s proposal and only reluctantly supported state-federal management. He said he believes someone will file a lawsuit to stop the council’s action. That will allow the status quo of state management to continue at least this summer, as managers and groups pursue a different solution.
“I can’t imagine they’d close federal waters and essentially put the last nail in the fishery without further public process,” Micciche said.
“What got us here was the unwillingness of the user groups to work together,” Micciche said.
Council members seemed hopeful that a congressional change to the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act could allow the state to legally manage the fishery in federal waters.
That’s something Micciche said he’ll pursue with the state’s congressional delegation.
“You’ll see inadequate results until people start talking with each other,” Micciche said.
The council approved the shutdown with a 10-0 vote, with councilman Jim Balsiger abstaining.