Federal management of Cook Inlet fisheries would be a step back

Were U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens alive today, he would be shocked to discover Alaska commercial fishermen (see commentary by United Cook Inlet Drift Association President Dave Martin, published by Alaska Dispatch News April 24) want to use the federal legislation he co-authored -- the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act -- to bring federal overreach to Cook Inlet only miles from the state's largest city.

The now 40-year-old act booted foreign fishermen out of the 200-mile fisheries zone of the Alaska coast and led to the restoration of depleted fisheries, as detailed in a commentary published by ADN April 12. But the feds continue to struggle with how to manage bycatch in what are now domestic offshore fisheries.

Alaska salmon managers, on the other hand, have been successfully dealing with bycatch problems since statehood. Sometimes facing threats from commercial fishermen, they cleaned up mixed-stock fisheries that had decimated salmon stocks throughout the northern Panhandle.

In Cook Inlet, they wrote the book on best management for mixed-stock, mixed-species management that weighs commercial and noncommercial fishing interests. The reason the feds elected to delegate to the state all authority for salmon management, not only in Cook Inlet but also on the Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound, is not what Martin claims, not as some desire to dodge a role in moderating the inevitable fish wars that surround commercial, subsistence, personal use and sport allocations. The reason the feds took themselves out of the picture is they realize the state is already doing a better job than they could do.

Were Stevens around today, he would be praising federal managers for making a wise decision. The author of the "Tenth Amendment Enforcement Act of 1996 ... To protect the rights of the States and the people from abuse by the Federal Government'' knew as well as anyone the colossal failure of federal management of salmon and the state's history of success.

Martin claims a state management failure because "10 to 30 million salmon" pass through the Inlet largely unharvested, but that's a straw man. The underharvested salmon are mostly pinks and some chums, both of which UCIDA members really don't want to catch. But by being able fish for those species, they are able to catch large numbers of silver salmon, which bring in far more money than pinks and chums. Last summer chums went for around 50 cents a pound and pinks, if sold, would have been less than half that amount. Silvers fetched approximately $1 or more per pound. Chums historically amount to around 1 percent of the value of Cook Inlet harvest, and silvers more than 3 percent.

The same silvers, however, are worth orders of magnitude more in the sport fisheries of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley if they make it through the Inlet and into the rivers in which they were born. These silvers illustrate but one facet of the complicated problem with which state managers regularly wrestle.


The Inlet is, these days, more than just a commercial fishery. Dramatically changing demographics, economics and culture in Anchorage, the Mat-Su, and even on the Kenai, have increased demand for equal access to the common property resources. The Alaska Board of Fisheries has recognized and dealt with these issues in ways that have never left everyone happy. Predictably, the biggest attacks on the board have come from those who want to return to the days when commercial interests dominated the Fish Board and gave the vast majority of salmon to commercial fishermen.

When commercial fishermen like Martin claim that state management is not science-based, what they mean is that they don't like outcomes that sometimes cut into their profits. History tells the true story.

Under the leadership of the Fish Board, Alaska salmon harvests have increased from 25 million fish in 1959 to a reported catch of 263.5 million last year. Someone has obviously done something right with the science. After decades of state management, the salmon catch is now more than 10 times the prestatehood harvest.

Under state management, Southeast Alaska alone produced almost twice as many salmon -- 46.2 million -- as the entire state did when state managers took over from the feds, and yet some Cook Inlet commercial fishermen somehow want Alaskans to believe state management isn't working. You'd think they'd be thankful for state management, and maybe even a little thankful to other Alaskans who have been incredibly good to commercial fishermen.

Since voters -- the vast majority of whom weren't commercial fishermen -- approved the Limited Entry Fisheries Amendment to the state constitution to end competition in the commercial fisheries in 1972, gross earnings for commercial drift fishermen in the Inlet have gone from $4.5 million per year to recently as high as $30 million in 2011 and 2012, a remarkable growth in a time of intense global competition from new markets and aquaculture.

Apparently Martin doesn't think this sevenfold increase in the cash funneling into the pockets of his drifters is enough. He wants to get the feds involved in the Inlet to do what? Increase harvests on mixed-stock fisheries? The best science has been trying to minimize or eliminate such fisheries not just here but all along the West Coast.

Why? Because no one can really predict what they catch. In some years past, the drift fishery for Cook Inlet sockeye has ended up catching a whole lot of silver salmon vital to sport fisheries and tourism businesses throughout the Susitna Valley. It was exactly this sort of thing the late Sen. Stevens warned against in his 2003 keynote address to the "Managing Our Nation's Fisheries'' conference: "I recommend your regional councils focus on using sound science, protecting habitat, reducing bycatch, protecting nonfisheries resources including marine mammals, and always follow responsible and sustainable fishing practices,'' he said.

The state of Alaska has a 57-year-record of doing everything Stevens wanted. The state's fisheries science has led the world. Its habitat remains largely unchanged since prehistoric days. It has been a leader in the elimination and modification of mixed-stock salmon fisheries to eliminate the bycatch of nontarget species. Its success at managing sustainable fisheries is proven in the annual salmon harvests greater than the 100 million fish per year that have become the norm since the 1980s.

There is no way the feds can do a better job. But Martin and his commercial organization, UCIDA, don't seem to care. Their issue isn't really with the biological management of the resource; it's with their own economics -- more fish in commercial drifters' fish holds and more money in their pockets.

Karl Johnstone is a retired Alaska Superior Court judge and former chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.