A new Cook Inlet

fish wars II

A promo for the Cook Inlet reality show now available on NetFlix

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal entity dominated by commercial fishing interests, has named a Cook Inlet salmon committee to establish policy for management of fish in federal waters within sight of Alaska’s largest city.

The committee comprises three of the top four officials of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the most powerful commercial fishing lobby in Southcentral Alaska; a retired teacher from the Homer school district who now teaches in rural Alaska but commercial fishes the Inlet in summer; and a “community fishery organizer” for a non-government entity (NGO) dedicated to promoting commercial fishing in the 49th state.

There is not a single representative of sport, personal-use or subsistence fishermen at the mercy of gillnet fisheries that can sometimes seriously reduce the flow of salmon into rivers throughout the state’s Southcentral region.

In naming the policy-setting group, council chairman Dan Hull, a commercial fishermen based in Anchorage, said “my selection of this initial group of Salmon FMP Committee members focuses on the primary affected stakeholders, the Cook Inlet drift gillnet permit holders, who fish in the EEZ waters of Cook Inlet.

“The tasking that the NPFMC has given to the Salmon FMP Committee is also primarily focused on measures related to management of the drift gillnet salmon fisheries in the EEZ.”

EEZ is “council family” shorthand for the U.S. government’s exclusive economic zone, a broad expanse of ocean extending from state waters to 200 miles off the country’s coast. The “inner boundary,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “is coterminous with the coastal state’s boundary at three nautical miles, expect for Texas, western Florida and Puerto Rico, which claim a nine-nautical-mile belt.”

Given that Alaska is one of the states claiming only three miles, a finger of federal water slices into the middle of the 80- to 9-mile-wide Inlet that stretches about 200 miles inland from the Gulf of Alaska to lap at the beaches of Anchorage, the state’s largest city.

Commercial fishermen operating in the federal waters have the capability of putting a chokehold on salmon returning to the broad Susitna basin river system at the head of the Inlet, Kenai Peninsula rivers along the east side of the Inlet, and Alaska mainland rivers along the west side of the Inlet.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) has historically overseen Inlet management, and it has sometimes ordered conservative harvests in the middle of the waterway in order to ensure large numbers of salmon make it into nearshore waters and the rivers and streams beyond.

UCIDA grew unhappy with that sort of management as the percentage of Cook Inlet salmon going to 573 holders of drift gillnet permits – about a third of them non-Alaskans – declined over the past decades and along with that the earnings of the permit holders.

Inlet commercial fishermen still claim the lion’s share of the Inlet harvest. And Inlet drifters today catch more salmon than they did before the introduction of the state’s limited entry permit system in the 1970s, but the value of their catch in real dollars has declined as the price of salmon has fallen, according to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. 

Salmon prices peaked in 1988 when fishermen in some Alaska fisheries were paid nearly $3 per pound ($6.37 in 2018 dollars) and Upper Cook Inlet driftnet skippers earned a seasonal average of $119,000 ($253,000 in 2018 dollars), according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports.

Farmed salmon, the production of which is banned in Alaska, entered the market in force not long after and prices began falling. Prices for wild fish have never fully rebounded and probably never will. Three out of every four salmon sold in the world today comes from a farm, and as a result the farmers dictate price.

Their ever-increasing production – farmed sales grew from 26 tons in 1970 to a projected 2.4 million tons this year and 2.5 million in 2019 – has served to hold down all salmon prices. By way of comparison, Alaska’s biggest harvests of wild and ranched salmon have hit about 500,000 tons with more than half of those of fish  low-value pink salmon which largely goes into cans. 

In response to chronically lower prices for high-value sockeye, Cook Inlet commercial fishermen – like those in the rest of Alaska – have tried to up their harvests to maintain profits.

In the interest of catching more fish, the 32-foot, 200-horsepower, 7-ton gillnetter that was the Inlet norm in 1978 has grown into a 36-foot, 350-horsepower, 11-ton vessel, according to the CFEC, and UCIDA has invested in lawsuits to try to remove restraints on harvests imposed by conservative state fishery managers.

Suing to victory

UCIDA went into federal court in 2013 to demand the feds take over management of salmon in the U.S. water of Cook Inlet under the terms of Magnuson-Stevens. The state, the suit argued, was mismanaging the area by failing to adhere to the “maximum sustained yield” principle of the act named for two iconic U.S. Senators long dead – Democrat Warren Magnuson from Washington state and Republican Ted Stevens from Alaska.

State efforts to manage fisheries to protect weak stocks of coho (silver) and Chinook (king) salmon in the big, mixed-stock fishery of the Inlet, UCIDA argued, were leading to “over-escapements” of pink, chum and sometimes even sockeye salmon.

The pinks and chums were largely a smokescreen. Forty years of CFEC data shows that the plentiful pinks and chums together historically comprise but 3.6 percent of the value of the Inlet drift catch. Almost 87 percent of the value is in sockeye and the rest in the kings and silvers prized by anglers fishing the rivers surrounding the Anchorage metropolitan area to the north, south, east and west.

Conflicts have arisen even under state management when the gillnet fleet has hammered some of those fish as happened with coho in the Inlet last year. Fearing the power of the people in the state of Alaska – the commercial drifters are vastly outnumbered by anglers, dipnetters and subsistence fishermen – UCIDA went into federal court in an effort to find a friendlier regulator to oversee Inlet salmon management.

The organization isn’t shy about what it wants. As it says on its web page, UCIDA was “incorporated in 1980 to represent the 570 drift gillnet salmon fishing permit holders in Alaska’s Cook Inlet….UCIDA’s purpose is to enhance and perpetuate the interests of this valuable commercial salmon fishing industry.”

The “interests” of UCIDA are simple: money.

The group wants the maximum commercial catch of all salmon to boost the profits of its members. And state fishery managers do not always put maximum commercial catch ahead of in-river needs for spawning salmon, plus salmon for the harvest of non-commercial fishermen.

Were that not enough, the BOF had – until the arrival of Gov. Bill Walker – focused on providing more protection for the last-in-line interests of in-river salmon fishermen. Appointments to the Board by a UCIDA-friendly Walker shifted the dynamic, but not enough to satisfy the commercial fishing group, which recognizes any new governor could easily shift the BOF back to a more in-river oriented salmon management policy.

UCIDA sees the NPFMC with its token representation for sport, subsistence and personal-users of salmon as much friendlier to UCIDA desires.

The 11-voting members in the Council family include the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), whose wife works as a consultant and sometimes lobbyist for commercial fishing interests; representatives of the fishery agencies for the state’s of Washington and Oregon, who largely watch out for interceptions of salmon bound for Pacific Northwest streams and the economic interests of Northwest-based companies that trawl bottomfish off Alaska’s coast; and Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a former commercial fishermen whose sons still fish Cook Inlet.

Along with the four bureaucrats, the Council has two members from Seattle who represent the interests of Seattle-based, offshore fishing interests in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea; two Alaska commercial halibut fishermen; a commercial salmon fisherman from Kodiak; a member of a group trying to further develop commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea; and the owner of an Alaska charter fishing company.

The latter is the only representative of non-commercial fishing entities.

The NPFMC is “heavily skewed toward commercial sector interests,” concluded a group of fishery policy researchers who reported on NPFMC practices in a study published in Marine Policy last month. 

Nationally, the Magnuson-Stevens Act itself has come under attack for undercutting recreational fishing opportunities and sport-fishing businesses. At a hearing held by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, in Soldotna last summer, Liz Ogilvie, the chief marketing officer for the American Sportfishing Association, testified non-commercial fishing interests have come to view federal managers and councils like the NPFMC as adversaries that spend most of their time trying to choke off noncommercial fishing opportunities.

And the other regional management councils – Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic and New England – are not nearly as stacked with commercial fishing interests as the NPFMC.

“For example,” the authors of the Marine Policy study wrote, “the 2016 composition of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council consisted of four members representing the recreational fishing sector, four members representing the commercial fishing sector, and three other members.”blurb1

New game in town

The “recreational fishing sector,” as federal regulators call it, now has that one member on the NPFMC, and none on the NPFMC’s new Cook Inlet Fishery Management Plan Committee. The members appointed to the latter committee by Hull, a commercial fisherman, are:



18 replies »

  1. She is a beautiful woman from Galena. Galena was of course a critical military base from which we assisted Stalin to defeat Hitler. Turns out Stalin was as bad as Hitler. Lessons learned. I would be a great Governor.

  2. BTW I will be running for Governor in 2020 unless someone talks me into running this year as a write-in with my new Athabaskan wife.

  3. Just nailed 19 ocean fresh reds at the Kasilof Personal use Setnet Fishery. So screw you Steve Stine. This is the highest and best value of harvest despite your Communist intentions.

    • And I guess you would also consider Teddy Roosevelt a communist for starting the NPS System?
      The reality Chris is that Roosevelt was a “Conservationist”….something that current Alaska deeply needs.
      Your mentality of “I got mine, it is all fine”…will not work moving forward.
      I have personally spoken to a gentleman at NPS who cares deeply on preservation issues in Alaska….he was just appointed to D.C.
      He also floated the Yentna River from glacier to confluence of Big Su and stated “If that area was anywhere else in the world it would be a National Park”.
      Maybe it is time we consider how to protect the Yentna Basin south of Denali Preserve and protect our salmon spawning headwaters for future generations?
      Maybe a National Wild and Scenic River is the way to prevent development from placing oil and gas wells all the way to the NPS Preserve?

  4. The state of Alaska has miss managed the Cook Inlet runs to the failure we are seeing today…these folks can only help the current situation.
    I welcome more federal oversight into Cook Inlet Salmon management.

    The statement:
    “Major portions of the Peninsula and Mat Su rivers are in a deep habitat trouble because of the in-river use and the human interaction close to these river systems.”…

    Is 100 percent true in my opinion…
    Just watch the “Barges” filling up at Deshka Landing and you can see the petrol “Sheens” across the water.
    No boats should be allowed to take on fuel from delivery trucks while parked in Salmon Streams…

    To really help the situation, feds will have to buy up land around spawning grounds from private land owners and rehabilitate the banks, replant trees and limit power boats from thrashing up river terrain during the spawning runs…reintroduce some wolves and protect them to push the ungulates back as well…

    • I’m sure that those drift fishermen called in the Feds so’s they can put more fish into the creeks, Steve. The “situation” is that those fishermen are wanting more of the fish. Magnuson-Stevens is not too big into personal use IMO.

      • Bill,
        you are probably correct, yet we cannot allow popular salmon streams in the Mat Su to be closed year after year to fishing (while even meeting escapement goals)…
        there is no king fishing on the Little Willow, yet airboats and jet boats thrash up and down spawning grounds well into the early mornings…
        anyone identifying the poor habitat in the Valley is in the right direction in my opinion.
        funny how tourists have a better chance on seeing a sled dog on a chain than viewing a wolf in the wild?
        maybe someone should bring up the sled dog feces that falls into the rivers every year with break-up?
        I believe the Cook Inlet Keeper organization has detected high levels of fecal material each spring in the inlet.
        Lots to discuss….I hope these panels open up for public input.

  5. The inlet is not 80-90 miles wide anywhere. More like 25 miles at the widest. Even so, the state has jurisdiction 3 miles from shore only, so the eez is hardly a “finger”. It is rather where the majority of salmon have been harvested by the drift fleet for most of the last century

    • Thanks for that information. Here is an attorney (Jason Morgan) speaking about the court decision: “Plaintiffs are very concerned that if NMFS and the Council continue to focus only on the selected parts of the fishery occurring in the EEZ rather than the entire fishery (as instructed by the Ninth Circuit and as required by statute) the entire remand process is likely to be a wasted exercise,”
      This sounds like, to me, it’s more than just the EEZ.

  6. can anyone explain the most recent study on turbidity in the kenai river ? Please include what they think the major cause is.

    • The Alaska Impaired Water Body report from DEC proposes to list the Kenai River as exceeding the turbidity standards in July only, and only in the tidal zone of the lower Kenai River from river mile 12 to river mile 5. The exceedances are for drinking water and secondary recreation. There is no listing for any section of the Kenai River at any time for exceeding the fish and wildlife standards for turbidity.

      So don’t drink the water from RM 12 to RM 5 in July on the Kenai River, and if you go swimming remember to wear a life jacket.

  7. A political problem requires a political solution. The delegation can fix this by removing Cook Inlet waters from the NMFC management of Magnuson Stevens. Sent the following off this morning. Cheers –

    Craig Medred reports that the National Marine Fisheries Council named a Cook Inlet salmon committee to manage fish allocation. 6 of the 7 appointees are pure commfish representatives. This represents a legal takeover of Cook Inlet salmon returns, putting the economic interests of 1,300 commfish permit holders above those of the other 300,000 who fish the Inlet. I asked you over a year ago to remove Cook Inlet waters – all of them – from Magnuson – Stevens. So far, nothing has been done outside the creeping, court-ordered commfish takeover of resource allocation. This is a shared resource, best managed (however poorly) by the State of Alaska. Reaction to this legalized theft will be ugly. Your office can stop it. Please take appropriate action.

    • While I can understand the concern, I also am skeptical of how the NMFC would be able to manage this small sliver of US waters without the State’s input. I also think of this as more of a legal problem than a political one. Dan Hull is a former drift gillnetter so does have a feel for that fleet, though he fished PWS-I fished alongside him for a number of years and know him to be a reasonable guy. I believe him to be a halibut longliner now but my point is that he does know of issues the drift fleet faces.
      I can’t imagine our Congressional Delegation could (or would) attempt to remove legitimate US waters from Magnuson-Stevens. Who would support them if they did-do any US citizens (other than Alaskans) get anywhere near the PU, subsistence fish that Alaskans enjoy??

  8. I think I am going to be sick. For all Alaskan residents who would like to partake in sport or dipnetting. They are the losers in this crap of allocations. Money apparently trumps access to Alaskans. Thanks UCIDA, Maw and your ilk can rot in hell

    • Okay, then be sick! Your choice. Difference between an Alaskan, who receives the PDF & a puppy? The puppy quits whining after 6 weeks.
      Oil was flowing, 3-4 tankers a day, out of Valdez, our State was spreading money around to all Alaskan communities, municipalities, villages and cities, like there was no tomorrow.
      Alaskan still have the one of the highest blue collar in all 50 states.
      Plenty of fish to go around, come to PWS, support our local communities and catch lots of fish.

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