After years of negotiations between federal officials and Cook Inlet commercial fishermen over how to prosecute a federal fishery in the center of the 200-mile-long waterway that laps at Anchorage’s front door, the state has offered a simple solution:
Close the Inlet’s federal waters to commercial salmon fishing.
The solution is eminently practical. It saves the feds the cost of managing a new fishery and eliminates the need for regular federal reviews requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) to wrestle with a tangle of complicated management issues, plus potential conflicts between fishing and an endangered population of beluga whales.
As for the salmon, they can – according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game – be adequately harvested in state waters that extend three miles into the Inlet from adjacent state lands.
The state already has total jurisdiction over Inlet waters north and east of a line from near the Kenai Peninsula community of Ninilchik to just south of Kalgin Island, but there is a large pool of water in the lower Inlet that is part of the nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or what most Americans know simply as the “200-mile limit.”
The federal government long allowed state management of salmon in that small corner of the EEZ, but the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA) went to court in 2013 to demand a federal takeover.
The courts eventually ruled that federal authorities couldn’t just ignore the Inlet segment of the EEZ. If a fishery was being prosecuted there, it was decided, federal law required a fisheries management plan.
Federal officials have spent years trying to come up with such a plan in an area of the state famous for “fish wars” between commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen – all of whom believe they are getting less than their fair share of the catch.
And any of whom, plus environmental organizations, might be willing to sue if unhappy about a federal management plan.
Thus came the state’s official suggestion to the North Pacific Council on Monday offering a simple out “by extending the existing west (Alaska) area prohibition on commercial salmon fishing in the EEZ to the Cook Inlet EEZ.”
The Council agreed to add the closure to a list of options about to be put out for public review. The Council is to vote on a plan for Inlet management in December.
A political minefield
A vote to close the Inlet’s EEZ to commercial salmon fishing would be a huge slap in the face for about 570, well-funded and politically activity holders of drift gillnet permits worth more than $366,000 each in 1990, according to the state’s Commercial Fishery Entry Commission.
The value of those permits has seriously deflated over time as Inlet salmon catches have fallen and competition from farmed salmon has capped the prices paid Alaska fishermen for their catches.
Permits are now trading at $30,000 to $40,000 each, according to a website trafficking in permits, and what was once a professional fishery is increasingly dominated by school teachers, businessmen, lawyers, doctors and others who can take a few months off from their regular jobs each summer to pick up a little cash with a second job and relish in the thrill of slaughtering salmon – a summer craze in the 49th state.
The fishery’s transition away from professionals to hobbyists has not, however, dimmed the ardor of UCIDA, the Inlet region’s most politically powerful commercial fishing lobby.
Commercial fishermen largely dictated Inlet salmon management policy to the Alaska Board of Fisheries for decades after passage of the Alaska Limited Entry Act in 1973, and UCIDA would like to return to those days when commercial fishermen were revered figures.
State voters in 1972 voted to amend the Alaska Constitution to gift commercial fishermen limited entry to restrict market competition at a time when cold water in the North Pacific Ocean had severely reduced Alaska salmon productivity.
Statewide salmon harvests in the early 1970s ranged from 22 million to 68 million salmon per year, and given the low volume of fish available, it didn’t take much competition among fishermen to ensure they were all on the verge of going broke.
Limited entry fixed that by capping the number of participants in the market, and in the 1980s and early 1990s when salmon prices rose sky high, a lot of commercial fishermen made big money.
Unfortunately, the high-prices being paid for salmon lured Norwegian businessmen, and later others, into the development of commercial salmon farms, and salmon aquaculture exploded. Three out of four salmon eaten in the U.S. today is farmed, and competition between the farmers has driven down the price paid for all salmon.
Still, some commercial salmon fishermen do well – notably drift netters in Bristol Bay and purse seiners in Prince William Sounds – thanks to the huge volumes of salmon being caught in those areas in the new millennium.
The statewide Alaska catch averaged near 180 million per year through the 2010s, though there are now increasingly large oscillations between harvests in even-numbered years and odd-numbered years.
Scientists are unsure of why a natural, year-to-year shift in harvests driven primarily by pink salmon that produced catches of 110 million to 154 million salmon per year in the 1980s is now producing catches of 111 million to 280 million.
Or why the catches of the highest value Gulf of Alaska salmon – sockeyes, cohos (silvers) and Chinook (kings) – are in decline. Sockeyes and coho have traditionally been the Inlet’s money fish.
It’s been largely all downhill since.
As statewide, commercial harvests of salmon dominated by low-value pinks have steadily gone up since the 1980s, catches of the high-value Inlet money fish have steadily gone down.
The Inlet’s commercial fishermen blame these shrinking sockeye catches on shifts of catch to sport and personal-use fisheries and state mismanagement.
Commercial fishermen lost control of the state’s Fish Board as Alaska grew in the 1990s and the fish caught in tourist-driven sport fisheries became more valuable than the salmon caught by commercial fishermen.
But the shifts in catch have been relatively small.
Harvests in the popular, Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery have fallen steadily since a peak of 538,000 in 2011. Fish and Game has yet to compile all of the data from 2020, but the official catch in 2019 was 331,000, a considerable jump from the dismal 2018 catch of 165,000 but still only 62 percent of the 2011 catch, according to the latest state data.
The Kenai sport harvest of sockeye has averaged approximately 415,000 fish per year for the decade, according to state data, although the harvest did jump to 517,000 last year after a dismal 2018 that saw a catch of only 232,000.
Those were the high and lows for the decade. According to the data, the annual average has crept up about 60,000 from the previous decade, which was slightly above that of the decade before it.
At most, the state data would indicate an average annual increase in sport and personal-use harvest of something under 400,000 fish per year since 1996, the last year for which state data is readily available online.
That amounts to only about 20 percent of the commercial harvest lost since the 1980s. But commercial fishermen have also blamed the shrinking catch on state mismanagement in the form of “over-escapement.”
Fishery scientists have dismissed the “myth of over-escapement (as) an unnecessary distraction,” but that has done little to quell the belief among commercial fishermen that if only fewer salmon were allowed to spawn more salmon would return to the Inlet every year.
Over-escapement is the theory that you can have too many salmon in a river system, and once some ceiling is reached, it has been demonstrated too many salmon will reduce production.
When the numbers of fish exceed the available spawning habitat, crowding can reduce reproductive success. When too many fry hatch, competition between them for available food can reduce survival.
But identifying over-escapement is easier in theory than in practice given the curveballs that the environment can throw into any calculation.
Commercial fishermen, however, see magical numbers which if met, they believe, would return three, four or more fish for every one that spawns.
All that is preventing this, they believe, is state management.
MSY is an old, old fisheries management theory that seeks to maintain the productivity of wild fish stocks at their highest level.
Writing in the ICES Journal of Marine Science in 2013, from the University of California took issue with an idea they say sprang from little more than a desire to expand U.S.-controlled, industrial-scale fishing during the Cold War.
“MSY is an example of the proverbial three-legged stool,” they wrote. “It began as policy; it was declared to be science; and then it was enshrined in law. The three partial theories could not be successfully unified into a comprehensive ‘scientific’ theory because MSY was a policy camouflaged as science.”
They noted that since the policy was embraced by the U.S. State Department as a tool with which to try to control use of the globe’s oceans, there has been “voluminous criticism of MSY, from both scientists and economists, who have tried to ‘fix’ the science, while ignoring the political context in which the science was created.”
None of this has done much to change the public view of MSY, especially among commercial fishermen. There the theory lives on as a holy grail because, as the two scientists note, “on the face of it, the policy (is) logical enough.” The problem is that it is built on assumptions that don’t always hold up.
For the first time this year, the state Board of Fish began to edge away from MSY in the recognition that if salmon are worth tens of dollars per pound when caught by tourists in sport fisheries, it is not sensible to manage them solely in the idea of maximizing the harvest in commercial fisheries where they are worth less than $2 per pound.
Federal laws governing fishery management specify no specific requirement for MSY, but the Inlet’s commercial fishermen went to court believing they’d get more fish (and thus more money) from the feds than from the state despite specific federal requirements for protecting weak stocks of fish – of which there are many in and around the Inlet – and marine mammals – of which the belugas are but one.
In a court hearing in May, an attorney for UCIDA told a federal judge state officials were conspiring “to put my client out of business” and demanded an immediate federal takeover of salmon management not just in the EEZ but from the ocean to the spawning beds in Inlet streams.
The judge refused to act and said he’d wait to see how the NPFMC handled the issue. NOAA’s latest report to the Council outlines all kinds of problems in manipulating the state’s flexible salmon management system to meet the rigid catch-limit and total-allowable-catch standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.
Former Gov. Bill Walker, a friend of UCIDA’s, encouraged the organization to believe federal oversight of state salmon management would be a good thing. State fisheries biologists said they doubted that Sam Cotten – the longtime commercial fishermen who Walker appointed Commissioner of Fish and Game – would have suggested to NOAA and the NPFMC that they prohibit salmon fishing in the Inlet’s EEZ zone.
But Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has taken a very different view. He appointed as commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, a former fisheries biologist who once ran the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, and Vincent-Lang has eased the state agency in a different direction.
Given the state’s influence on the Council, the latest proposal is expected to get a serious hearing in December.