North Pacific council reaches impasse on Cook Inlet Fishery Management Plan

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council stalled out on action on how to manage the Cook Inlet salmon fishery this month after reaching an impasse with the state of Alaska.

At its meeting Friday, the council voted to take no action on the developing Cook Inlet Fishery Management Plan, which would set the guidelines for how the salmon fishery in the federal waters of Cook Inlet would work. The plan has been in development for the last several years, with much contention between user groups and at least two lawsuits in the mix.

With no action on the books, the National Marine Fisheries Service will now start making a rule on its own to deal with Cook Inlet.

Cook Inlet’s salmon fishery takes places partly in state waters and partly in federal waters. Most of the volume of sockeye caught in the fishery happens in the federal waters, which start 3 nautical miles offshore. For decades, though, the fishery has been managed by the state through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, because the state manages most salmon across Alaska.

In 2016, a federal court ruled that the council had to develop a new FMP for Cook Inlet, following a lawsuit by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the trade group that represents the drift gillnet fleet of Cook Inlet. The council took about three years to do so and came up with four alternatives for a plan: Change nothing; delegate management to the state with federal oversight; completely manage the fishery federally; or close the fishery. Most fishermen said they preferred the second option, as it would create few changes but require the federal government oversee state management.

The state refused to accept delegated authority, saying at the 2020 meeting that it viewed that option as federal overreach that violated its sovereignty to manage fish and game resources. Left with few other acceptable options, the council moved to accept the fourth option and close the Cook Inlet salmon fishery entirely.

UCIDA again sued in federal court, saying that decision was arbitrary and capricious, and the court agreed. The second court decision kicked the discussion back to the council, which was now left with only three options. The first option was already vetoed by the court, which said in 2016 that the council had to do something, which really meant only the second two alternatives were available.


On Friday, the council again tried to consider Alternative 2. Council member Jon Kurland, the Alaska regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, asked if the state of Alaska would accept delegated management. Rachel Baker, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who represents the state on the council, said no.

“After reviewing the analysis prepared for this action and the testimony, the state of Alaska is not willing to accept delegated management authority for salmon fishing in the Cook Inlet EEZ (exclusive economic zone) under the conditions specified in Alternative 2,” she said.

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Kurland introduced another motion to accept Alternative 3, which would fully manage the Cook Inlet salmon fishery under the federal system. That system had a number of drastic changes for the fishery, including a hard season end date and a total allowable catch limit. Both of those are tools mostly used for groundfish fisheries and don’t take into account the unknowns of salmon runs. Multiple council members and members of the public noted that that was a major downside of Alternative 3.

Erik Huebsch, the vice president of UCIDA, told the council that the fleet preferred Alternative 2. UCIDA believes Alternative 3 wouldn’t comply with the federal rules for fishery management under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, he said.

“It’s clear to most people that Alternative 3 is designed to fail, or at least create a failed fishery,” he said.

No council member seconded Kurland’s motion to accept Alternative 3, which meant it could not be considered for a vote. Council member Bill Tweit described it as “an unfortunate juncture” that the council was tied to a tight timeline by the federal court, but couldn’t support Alternative 3 because it had too many problems for the fishery.

“Alternatives 1 and 4 have already been ruled out for us by a federal judge, and Alternative 2 was ruled out for us by the state of Alaska,” he said. “That’s their purview — they can do that. I would not have wanted to put the state of Alaska where they’re a reluctant partner. Reluctant partnerships make for poor fishery management.”

Council member Andy Mezirow said he couldn’t see a way to support the motion either, as it would increase costs for fishermen and likely lead to lower catches. He also expressed frustration with the timeline — the court’s deadline forced the council to make a decision by its April meeting.

“Fisheries management on a tight court mandated timeline does not allow us to do our best work,” he said.

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Kurland said the agency had limited options for how it could proceed, given that the state of Alaska would not accept delegated management for the fishery.

“I understand the council’s position, it is truly regrettable,” he said. “We are where we are, the agency will proceed with a secretarial amendment to the FMP.”

He said the National Marine Fisheries Service will work on a secretarial amendment in the coming months and will engage with both the council and the stakeholders on its development.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at

Elizabeth Earl for Alaska Journal of Commerce

Elizabeth Earl is a freelance reporter based on the Kenai Peninsula. Reach her at