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.
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.”
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:
- Erik Huebsch, the first vice-president of UCIDA, who has accused elected officials in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough at the head of Cook Inlet of funding “projects that fit their agenda to perpetuate the salmon allocation wars.” The borough has been trying to gain data on salmon interception in the Inlet with an idea to finding ways to reduce the number of coho salmon being caught by commercial fishermen there while still providing commercial drifters an adequate opportunity harvest sockeye bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, which comprise the tail of the dog that shakes the Inlet salmon fishery.
- Dan Anderson, the second vice-president of UCIDA, who is on record suggesting Alaska salmon habitat is being destroyed by in-river fishermen. “…The sport fish harvest mainly takes place in the habitat these fish critically need to survive,” he commented on the website of the Homer News. “Major portions of the Peninsula and MatSu rivers are in a deep habitat trouble because of the in-river use and the human interaction close to these river systems.”
- Dino Sutherland, the secretary/treasurer of UCIDA, one of the stars in season two of the reality TV show “Alaska Fish Wars,and a big backer of former UCIDA executive director Roland Maw, who Walker appointed to the BOF only to discover Maw was claiming to be a resident of both Montana and Alaska. The Alaska Department of Law contends Maw was really a resident of the Lower 48 state masquerading as an Alaskan; as a result, Maw faces multiple felony charges for illegally obtain Permanent Fund Dividends.
- Hannah Hemibuch, a “community fisheries organizer” for the Alaska Marine Fisheries Conservation Council, a driftnet fisherman, and writer. The Marine Fisheries Council is a commercial fishing advocacy group and commercial salmon marketing organization.
- And Mark Casseri, the one-time athletic director from the Homer High School who retired in 2014 along with his wife with plans to “continue working their Cook Inlet commercial fishing business, downsize their house, relocate to Kasilof and winter in Pennsylvania to be near an elderly parent,” the Homer News reported.They later, however, took jobs as teachers in Akiachak. Akiachak is a rural village in far Western Alaska. The CFEC now lists Casseri’s residence as a P.O. Box in Kasilof.