Explaining UCIDA's role in Cook Inlet salmon management lawsuit

In January 2013, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Secretary of Commerce challenging the approval of a decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to remove federal waters in Cook Inlet from the scope of the federal salmon fishery management plan. This case is pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, as case number 14-35928, and is under assessment by the mediation program for settlement potential.

There have been numerous misstatements made about this case, including statements by some Alaska legislators and in an op-ed piece by Karl Johnstone (recently removed as Board of Fisheries chairman) as to the intent of this case. We hope that this brief statement provides clarification on the nature of this litigation.

UCIDA does not want federal management of the Cook Inlet fishery. We want the council, in conjunction with the state and stakeholder groups, to write a Fisheries Management Plan for Cook Inlet that complies with the 10 National Standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, then delegate authority to the state to manage the fishery. This process is used in Southeast Alaska for salmon management and in other fisheries across the state, 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 it has to follow in other areas.

The plaintiffs in this case are UCIDA and the Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund. The suit was filed against the secretary of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The state of Alaska was not sued. The state of Alaska decided to intervene in support of the NMFS and participate as an intervenor-defendant.

UCIDA's principal concern is the long-term health of the salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet and the ability to maintain a viable commercial fishery in the Inlet for generations to come. The MSA is our national charter and model for sound, science-based management of commercial fisheries. The MSA includes 10 national standards and requires the development of an FMP based on the best science available to ensure that fisheries are sustainably managed and managed to ensure the maximum sustainable yield from that fishery. The MSA expressly allows these plans to incorporate state management measures and allows NMFS to delegate management of the fishery to a state.

After the passage of the MSA in 1976, the state of Alaska agreed that it would manage fisheries in Cook Inlet in a manner consistent with the MSA. The immediate turnaround in fisheries in Alaska following the passage of the MSA was remarkable, and the overall harvest of wild salmon on a statewide basis increased over 200 percent.

By the late 1990s that trend began to reverse in Cook Inlet. The state stopped following its agreement with NMFS and actively took the position that it need not consider the MSA or the national standards in making fishery management decisions. Instead the Board of Fisheries in 2000 wrote a new management scheme called the Policy for the Management of Sustainable Salmon Fisheries. Since the passage of the SSFP, harvests of salmon in Cook Inlet have significantly declined.

These declines are, in large part, attributable to mismanagement by the state. Invasive pike and other habitat problems in the Mat-Su basin have eliminated 100 percent of the salmon production in eight lakes and have reduced total production in that watershed by 50 percent. Rather than address the in-river problems, the state responded by progressively restricting commercial fishing that targeted healthy stocks heading to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, even though commercial fisheries only catch a fraction of the stocks headed north to the Mat-Su basin. Those restrictions have led to repeated overescapements of sockeye on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers, which in turn lead to smaller returns to those rivers in subsequent years. Compounding these problems, returns of some king salmon stocks have crashed in the Inlet, resulting in a 2012 disaster declaration.

UCIDA filed this lawsuit because it wanted to end this downward spiral and bring science and reason back into the management of fisheries in Cook Inlet.

In 2012 UCIDA asked the council to update the Fisheries Management Plan for Cook Inlet, last updated in 1990. Instead, the council simply removed Cook Inlet altogether from the plan.

UCIDA filed suit challenging NMFS's decision to approve the council's decision. UCIDA's position is that the procedure used by the council is improper. If the council believes that the state is the best entity to implement the management of salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet, then it was required to develop a plan meeting the 10 national standards that properly delegates management to the state.

As the Cook Inlet region continues to develop, putting increased pressure on habitat and the resource itself, the need to comprehensively address these concerns continues to mount. The efforts by the board to address the problems facing the fishery have either been politically motivated, without a scientific or factual basis, or both. The development of a fishery management plan for the Inlet creates a real and lasting opportunity to bring all resource users together with scientific experts and state, federal and tribal managers to restore and preserve this important resource.

Concerns about "federal overreach" through a fishery management plan simply misunderstand the mechanism by which the MSA operates. Federal oversight through NMFS is limited to ensuring that the plan complies with the MSA's national standards and that the state complies with the plan.

Moreover, if the downward spiral is not halted, federal involvement will not be limited to this minimal oversight. The complete extirpation of salmon from eight lakes in the Mat-Su Basin and the recent crash in chinook returns raise the specter that one or more such stocks could decline to the point that a listing as "threatened" or "endangered" is warranted under the Endangered Species Act. At that point we would face a real federal takeover of fishery management decisions in Cook Inlet. UCIDA's lawsuit is an attempt to prevent this from occurring.

David Martin is president of United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a trade organization that represents the commercial drift gillnet fleet of Cook Inlet.

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(at)alaskadispatch.com.