Commercial fishing boats plug the mouth of the Kenai River/UCIDA photo

Commercial fishing boats plug the mouth of the Kenai River/UCIDA photo

With the summer fishing season fast approaching in Alaska, the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) was back in federal court this week demanding an immediate federal takeover of salmon management in the state’s most contentious fishery.

The organization, which represents 570 commercial fishermen who snag fish with gillnets in the nearly 200-mile-long Inlet that laps at the doorstep of the state’s largest city, has for years now been trying to overthrow state management.

UCIDA attorney Jason Morgan on Tuesday accused the state of “actively trying to put my client out of business.”

Commercial fishermen in the Inlet last year harvested nearly 4.4 million salmon worth just under $22.9 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Their harvest represented more than 80 percent of the combined catch of commercial, sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries in which tens of thousands of fishermen are active.

But the interest that has long held the biggest shovel in the sandbox contends it is no longer getting a big enough piece of the action and claims it is being further short-changed by state management – or mismanagement – that sometimes ignores maximum sustained yield principles in favor of protecting weak salmon stocks.

Given the issues in play involve state and federal waters, state and federal fisheries managers, five species of salmon, and at least four user groups, the situation is complicated. Basically, however, it boils down to this:

UCIDA believes that if federal managers use their authority over a band of water down the middle of the Inlet to leverage control of salmon management Inlet-wide, UCIDA members will get to catch more fish – and thus pocket more money – than they do now.

Bring in the feds

The organization has already convinced the California-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to order the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) to write a Fisheries Management Plan for the Inlet’s federal waters, but UCIDA was back before the court on Tuesday arguing the Council isn’t acting fast enough and broadly enough.

Morgan wanted the court to order a plan by this summer extending federal management from the middle of the Inlet all the way to the spawning grounds of the salmon in the headwaters of the many streams and rivers draining into the Inlet.

He accused the National Marine Fisheries Service, a U.S. Commerce Department agency which functions as the Council’s staff, of sitting on its hands.

“They just let the state do what it will,” Morgan told the three justices hearing his appeal. “By the time we get to a final agency action…there won’t be a commercial fishery in Cook Inlet anymore. It will be gone. It’s an important national resource….The state is running it out of business unsupervised by the National Marine Fisheries Service.”

The judges didn’t seem to be buying the pitch.

“I’ll be honest,” Justice Ryan Nelson told Morgan. “I read our prior opinion, and I didn’t see anything in it that that provided you a hook to be raising the arguments you’re now raising.”

The Appeals Court ordered the Council to come with a plan. The Council has been working toward a plan but finding the going hard as it wrestles with allocating salmon between commercial, subsistence, personal-use and sport fisheries.

“That’s being done,” Nelson said. “Didn’t the district court order them to get that done by the end of this year?”

Morgan conceded that was true, but pressed the argument to say the plan is taking far too long. Attorneys for both the federal government and state disagreed.

Multiple stakeholders

“The plaintiffs think that they’re going to do better, that they’re going to get a better stake if there’s federal management rather than state management,” state attorney Laura Wolfe told the justices, but the feds – like the state – are required to consider fishery conservation first and then weigh competing uses for whatever allowable harvest is available.

“Commercial fishing is one of the uses that’s in the national interest,” she said, “but so too is the economic and recreational benefits to local communities.”

Sport fisheries are the cornerstone of an $800 million recreational fishing industry in the waters around the Inlet. Personal-use fisheries provide local food security for “Alaskans gathering food for their pantries for the year,” Wolfe said. And subsistence fisheries have both state and federal priorities on harvests.

“Plaintiffs are giving the court a very skewed view,” she said; regulators can’t just ignore all the other stakeholders because UCIDA thinks those fisheries deserve fewer fish.

And as a purely legal matter, she added, there is an even bigger problem. The Appeals Court told the Council to write a management plan for federal waters. It was never told to include state waters or pre-empt state regulations or, for that matter, write regulations different from those of the state.

Fisheries Service attorney Ellen Durkee agreed. The court’s original order for a management “plan has never included state waters…It’s a very radical position,” she said.

The court’s order, she reminded the justices, called for federal regulators to come up with a plan for managing the fish in federal waters which is what they are trying to do. Federal control over salmon in state waters has never been litigated.

“The issue of whether Council would have authority….was not raised” she said.

Morgan wanted to know if the federal fisheries service had itself considered whether it had the authority to take over management of salmon from the ocean to the spawning beds. Durkee responded that could be the subject for a future lawsuit because it isn’t addressed in the suit now before the court.

Big mixed stock

Fisheries managers overseeing the Inlet – be they state or federal – are dealing with a commercial fishery that preys on a wildly mixed stock of salmon from hundreds of spawning streams.

Five species of salmon return to the Inlet – Chinooks (kings), sockeyes (reds), cohos (silvers), chums (dogs) and pinks (humpbacks) – but the drift netters are primarily interested in the high-value sockeyes and cohos.

Unfortunately, drift nets are among the fishing gear that has been described as “dirty.” The nets can to some degree select for salmon of a certain size, but they can’t distinguish between species.

Particularly on the Kenai River, home to a world-famous run of king salmon and the Inlet’s largest run of sockeye, this has led to problems. State efforts to meet spawning goals for kings have sometimes forced closure of commercial fisheries because of the associated bycatch of kings in commercial nets aimed primarily at sockeye.

Commercial fishermen see red when sockeye in excess of spawning needs make it into the river simply to minimize the king bycatch. To them, this is nothing but money out of their pocket.

To environmentalists, it is an ecosystem enrichment that feeds the bears, the eagles, the rainbow trout and dozens of other species while fertilizing the forests.

To sport fishermen, many of them non-residents on trip-of-a-lifetime excursions to Alaska – it is better fishing.

And to personal-use dipnetters – average Alaskans who swing, big hooped nets into the glacially turbid waters of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers – it is a better chance of filling the freezer with salmon for the winter ahead.

Nearly all of the sport and personal-use fishing – and a good part of the commercial fishing – takes place in state waters.

The state controls the water three miles from shore along the east and west sides of the Inlet, but a band of water within the federal Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) runs down the middle.

Since Alaska Statehood, the federal government had ceded management of salmon to the state Inlet-wide, but four years ago UCIDA challenged that as a violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. 

First passed in 1976, the legislation named for the late Sens. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, created a Fisheries Conservation Zone (now the EEZ) extending seaward for 197 miles from where state waters ended off the U.S. Coast.

The Act was primarily aimed at gaining control over foreign trawlers then preying heavily on salmon and bottomfish stocks along the West and Alaska coasts. UCIDA hopes to now extend the reach of the Act to give the federal government broad new control over U.S. fishermen.

Before stepping into that deep water, Nelson suggested the court might first want to see how the Council and the fisheries service deal with the very complicated issues.  It would be “really unusual,” he said, for the court to intervene to tell the regulators how to write a fishery plan.

Morgan countered that by doing anything less the court was encouraging federal authorities to continue “thumbing their nose at that” earlier decision.

“If you’re right, then we will slap them down,” Nelson said. “(But) we’re not going to do it until this final agency action. That’s not how it works.”

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13 replies »

  1. I am just going to throw this out there because in a round about way it is all related. I am kind of thinking the Covid death count in Alaska MUST BE ZERO!!!!

    “Colorado has made a stunning and significant change to the way it counts COVID-19 deaths that reduced the statewide figure from more than 1,000 to 878, according to a report.

    The change came after Colorado’s Department of Public Health admitted that its COVID-19 death toll was counting those who tested positive for the coronavirus but had died of other causes, Fox 31 Denver reported late Friday.

    The department now says 1,150 Coloradoans who died had COVID-19 but only 878 of those deaths were “due to” COVID-19.”

  2. Sometimes when lawyers get involved they do so because they can continue to be paid. Lawyers are paid to argue and if you pay them to find an argument they will find it and keep cashing the checks as long as they come in. Plenty of lawyers make plenty of money never doing anything but arguing, even if they don’t believe what they are arguing for. UCIDA needs to stop paying for their lawyers vacations, retirement, and kids college tuition.

  3. While I will state up front that I am a member of ucida,I can’t speak intelligently about the merits of the lawsuit. But anybody who knows anything about the drift fishery that ucida represents knows that the drift fishery has very little impact on kenai chinook numbers. It can be argued that the drift harvest of susitna bound coho and sockeye has some significance in low escapements to some of the systems. It is my belief,and I may be wrong, is that this suit is seeking to require kenai and kasilof sockeye be managed for maximum sustained yield,required by the m.s. act. The bof is not doing this. They are repeatedly increasing escapement levels when data from the 80’s suggests that maximum returns (resulting in maximum yield FOR EVERYBODY, commercial,sport and p.u.) is achieved in the kenai with escapent levels of 350,000 to 500,000. Not 1,000,000 + that we are shooting for today. The jealousy and hatred for the c.I. commercial fishery is misguided,embarrasing,and shameful. This fishery was here long before sport, guided sport,and p.u fisherys came along and they all flourished back when the commercial fishery fished much harder than they do today. Most of us are hard working alaskans, your neighbors that have invested considerable time and money developing our businesses just like many of you, and it hurts too be called greedy for trying to defend our income and way of life
    Sorry if I am longwinded and have offended anyone, but I am passionately proud of my familys hard work trying to put food on our and americas table. Let us take care of our ecosystems so for generations to come Alaska will have strong salmon runs.

    • Gunner
      First, I don’t think jealousy is quite the right word, maybe appalled. Me personally, No hatred either.

      I think we all understand that some of you are Alaskans just trying to make a living, and we respect that, however we are also Alaskans wanting to put food in our freezers, and have our Native Salmon to be sustainable. Sometimes there isn’t enough to feed the whole world.

      I know this is currently pertaining to the Cook Inlet, but last year the wheels were pretty Barron up Slana way on the Copper. There’s more than just the people to consider here too, there’s also the animals and the land, which were here long before the fisheries.

      Then there’s our Constitution, to try to get something done at any cost and to go as far as infringing on states rights. Especially with the history between Alaska and the Federal government. That’s misguided, embarrassing, and shameful..

      I just wish us all the best, and to keep Alaska..Alaska…….

      • Last year was the best harvest per permit numbers in the last 20 years for personal use on the copper river. The best king harvest since 2002. The miles lake numbers were at the high end for fish passage over 1 million. Well managed fishery.

      • Glad there is no jealousy or hatred on your part zip. Come down to the kenai during dipnet season and listen to the conversations and you will hear plenty of jealousy and hatred. You see, many of them feel that if they stick that hoop in the water and it doesn’t come up wriggling with salmon it is because the commercial boys got them all. Really. I am serious, many of them feel this way. I have talked with them . They are ignorant of factors like run timing, water temperature,wind and other factors affecting river entry. I too hope we can keep the greatland the greatland.

    • Gunner, you sound like a reasonable person. UCIDA needs more like you, particularly at BOF meetings. For as long as I can remember the same players submit countless regulatory proposals doing two things: First, to make it difficult for recreational and PU fishers to harvest fish or reduce their opportunity, and second, to make it easier for the drifters to harvest fish or to provide more opportunity. One member whom you know whose initials are J. M. has submitted hundreds of proposals during UCI meetings attacking recreational and PU users. That is just one example of the “all for one and one for one” approach that has been the UCIDA mantra. If there is “hatred” it appears it truly comes from members of your organization. And trust me, there is no feeling of jealousy. People are disgusted.
      The leadership in UCIDA has either included or relied upon the advise of a man previously convicted of lying in Montana and currently facing felony charges in Alaska for lying under oath. It is understandable that many users do not trust your organization. He and others do not care about Alaska’s constitution that makes the resource common property to be managed for the “maximum” benefit of Alaska’s people. Not just for a few Cook Inlet permit holders.
      Finally, note that under the escapement goal Management system used since creation of the BOF, harvest levels by UCIDA have exponentially increased over the years. UCIDA may be flirting with disaster in getting the Council involved.

    • Kenai escapement of 350 – 500k second run reds will all but destroy both the sport and personal use fisheries, both of which rely on large chunks of salmon hitting the river daily. It is after all, supposed to be a shared resource. And don’t get me started on you guys targeting schools of coho bound for the Northern District, ANC, Turnagain Arm & the MatSu.

      Think of “… the jealousy and hatred for the c.I.commercial fishery…” as return fire from the other user groups. There is an old Mattis observation that the enemy always gets a vote. You guys have treated the other user groups as enemy over the years, running roughshod over our ability to also successfully participate in the fishery. You have used a very cozy relationship with the Kenai ADF&G commfish office to take very good care of yourselves at the expense of everyone else who fishes rivers and streams pouring into CI. And we’ve noticed.

      Like you, I tire of the endless fistfight. Unlike you, my proposal for a solution will grow the pie. Should UCIDA start trading their permits, boats and nets for onshore RAS systems, you can manage as many reds as you want, sell them year round, and even strip the carcasses for roe, all without impacting anybody else. Your future is in fish farming. You don’t know it yet, but your competitors certainly do. Cheers –

      • Here you go,as I posted earlier some uneducated folks believe that if commercial fishing were eliminated , large chunks of salmon would enter the river daily. .

      • I don’t think you guys should be eliminated. I do think you politically punch way above your weight. Happily, economics (and your own political choices over the last 30 years) are well on its way to solving that problem.

        I want you economically successful. I really, really want the end of the increasingly bitter fight over a static to decreasing resource pie. I want to grow that pie. And the best way to do so is to start trading commfish permits for fish farming business licenses – on shore or off.

        I’d manage in-river escapement for 1.5 – 2.0 million second run reds / year. I’d manage the inlet for a half million personal use fish caught from the Kenai / Kasilof yearly. I’d manage for a zero catch of kings and coho. You guys don’t think that is enough fish to maintain your businesses. I agree, which is why fish farming is your future and your economic salvation.

        Wouldn’t you rather sell fish 24/7/365 than in a 2-month window in the summer? Shoot, you could even cater to the sporties and personal use guys. Few things are more economically deadly than lack of imagination. And I see precious little of it from UCIDA these days. Cheers-

  4. UCIDA may have bitten off more than they bargained for. Instead of working cooperatively with the other users and the Dept in an attempt to find ways to lay off Chinook and to allow passage of Cohos and Sockeyes to the Anchorage and Valley streams, it is trying to get more and more of these species all at the expense of the recreational fishers and dip betters. There is no limit to their greed. Not only do a vast majority of Alaskans have disdain for this organization, the Dept has finally awakened and now recognizes the economic merits and importance of the sports and PU fisheries. The Federal Court will likely now see it the same way.

    In learning of UCIDA’s legal arguments they appear to
    have the fingerprints of Dr Roland Maw on them. Pretty sure, one must wonder whether his role will be limited to assisting with the briefing and his face and name will be hidden from view. UCIDA’s credibility is already suspect. They don’t need to have PHD Maw, who has been convicted in Montana for lying and is currently facing felony charges for more lying, being a front person for them.

  5. Speaking of persistence…it looks like the state is intending to once again keep the streams in the mat su closed to personal use salmon fishing?
    Just biked down to the little Willow yesterday and saw the yellow “no salmon fishing allowed” sign…on the other side of the stream was an abandoned junk car.
    What a mess this place has become.
    So much for new board members opening up the resources for locals this year.

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