No fishing zone

The federal waters at the heart of a salmon management dispute in red/NOAA graphic


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.

There were a lot of them in the Inlet in the  1980s. The average annual catch of sockeyes through that decade averaged 4.4 million.

It’s been largely all downhill since.

There was only a single year in the 2010s when the catch topped 4.4 million. And the decadal average fell to about 2.6 million, according to Fish and Game data. 

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.

UCIDA argues the state has messed things up so badly that the fishery that now harvests salmon in the Inlet’s EEZ is illegal in that it operates at a level below “maximum sustained yield (MSY).”

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, scientists Carmel Finley from the Rachel Carlson Center in Germany and Naomi Oreskes 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.





















16 replies »

  1. Biggest bullshit biased article ever written. It is embarrasing that the adfg deputy commisioner submitted alternative 4 under this so called pro business administration. It is apparent the penney contributions to this lame dick governor are being paid back. The corrupt bastards club rides again!.

  2. Ken Tarbox:
    We can all benefit from you background and work experience. But it is unnecessary to insult those who have different viewpoints. It diminishes the credibility of what is otherwise said.
    I disagree with your position on the economic impacts of commercial harvest vs sports and P.U. fishing. You failed to mention the studies made by the State that clearly show how much more money sports fishing brings to the area. Your argument that commercial fishing brings in “new “ money is far more apropos to sports fishing. Non residents and residents spend enormous sums ( hundreds of millions) fishing on the peninsula in one form or another. . And non resident spending is all new money.
    Those million dollar homes on the banks of the Kenai River were built and owned mostly by those who sport fish. The property taxes they pay significantly contribute to the local economies.
    A salmon caught by an angler results in multiple magnitudes more $ per fish than when caught in a gill net. Fish harvested by dip netters mostly stay in the State. Same by resident anglers. Fish caught by commercial fishers mostly go outside the state and value that is added takes place outside the state.
    The few thousand or so permit holders and crew that are residents are a fraction of the hundreds of thousand residents that benefit from the resource.
    Times have changed Ken. On the Kenai, sports fishing and dip netting are the economic driver. It is unfortunate for the commercial sector that there is such easy access to the resource by so many Alaskans. Unlike BB which has no road access, the Kenai is fortunately easily available to many Alaskans. The commercial sector now using the Kenai is understandably flailing and its influence in how the resource is managed is dwindling. As it should be.
    As is said, it is what it is.

    • Ak F,
      Good points,and I would agree with the economic factors.But that mostly only holds up on the South central road system(which is the focus of the article).
      The Inlet is a mess,no easy answers,heck the right questions are probably just as unpleasant

      • Thanks for the good catch. I could have been more clear by indicating my post referred just to the Kenai Peninsula fishing. Hopefully most understood my intent.

      • Respectfully disagree. There are relatively easy answers: Start trading commfish permits in Cook Inlet for onshore / offshore fish farming. The fewer commfish nets in the water, the more fish end up in CI fresh waters. This will take a repeal of the prohibition against aquaculture for finfish here in AK. Cheers –

  3. Craig you take issue with ADN poor journalism and then you write this garbage. So lets take your bs head on

    1. MSY management – it is a concept to maximze average yields. Articles must be referenced as to what MSY refers-some biological issue or yield. ADFG uses MSY to set over 40 escapement goals including kenai chinook.

    2. Federal closure. The feds tried this and lost all the way to the supreme court. Also this approach limits federal control to federal waters. However in the court ruling the fishery could be drfine as salmon through out their range. This issue will be decided in the next court case

    3. Direction of ADFG. This is the most bs. ADFG has since statehood been neutral on allocators. Doug Vincent Lang has advocated sport and PU fisherman. The ADFG has lost all credibility in the scientific community. Moral is at an all time low.

    Craig if you are going to take these issues you should present all viewpoints.

    • OK, it would appear you know something here that I don’t. What federal case involving closure of an EEZ has gone to the Supreme Court?

      As to the rest, yes, the Department uses MSY where it doesn’t use OSY or SEG.

      And you are the last guy to be judging whether the Department was or wasn’t neutral on allocations. Your job as a commercial fishery biologist hinged on catering to the needs and wants of commercial fishermen.

      No commercial fishery – no job. Too much push back from commercial fishermen – no job.

      Same for judging the morale in the agency. As an outside observer for more than 40 years, I haven’t known a time when the Department wasn’t full of unhappy people.

      Let me recollect the times at which morale was at that all-time low. The first-time I heard this was when Jim Brooks was Commissioner, but then there were people who said Ron Skoog was as bad or worse. He was of course replaced by Don Collinsworth who some said was horrible, and he was followed by Carl Rosier, who was just too damn old for many.

      Then came Frank Rue, who was a friggin’ landscape architect. I heard endless whining about that. What does a landscape architect know about managing fish and game? So he was replaced by Kevin Brooks who pushed morale down even farther because he was nothing but a “politician,” and then came McKie Campbell who was even more of a politician so thus even worse.

      And Denby Lloyd, nobody ever seemed to like Denby for reasons I never figured out, and Cora Campbell was marginally qualified for commissioner. Nobody likes working for someone marginally qualified.

      Now Sam Cotten, everyone agreed, was a really nice guy, but they didn’t think much of him professionally either because he wasn’t a fish and wildlife professional, and from a morale standpoint that’s sort of like naming a dog catcher the new editor of the local newspaper.

      The reality is that morale is very much a moving target in any agency full of very smart people half or more of whom think they could run the place better than whoever is in charge on any given day. And in these times, with budget cuts looming because money doesn’t fall from heaven and commercial fisheries don’t contribute much to state coffers, I’m sure more might be even more unhappy than usual, though there are also those who are the opposite.

      So why don’t you enlighten me on just when morale was sky-high in the Department. That might shed some light on where exactly it is you are coming from.

      Meanwhile, it’s an insult to everyone working there now to claim “ADFG has lost all credibility,” emphasis on ALL. That’s simply not true, and you well know it. There are a lot of people in the Department doing good, creditable work.

      • ok a history lesson. The fefs closed the eez by adding an amendment to an existing FMP. UCIDA sued saying a new FMP needed to be written. UCIDA lost in the lower court but appealed. The 9th circuit overturned the lower court and said new FMP was required. This was appealed to the SCOUS who refused to take it up. The ruling is full of interesting comments along with the transcript of the case. One part deals with closing the eez. It is referred to as the ounce of water discussion. So the feds could follow the appeal court ruling and write a valid FMP or delay and ignore which they did. When UCIDA recently sued they want the delays stopped. The judge ruled in their favor and hence the December deadline. Questions about where federal management ends and OY for UCI salmon stocks will be adjudicated in the next legal rounds. This is far from over on what an FMP should contain. If you read Washington and Oregon FMP the fedd go into State waters.

        Relative to my biasis I challenge you to find one paper or publication including BOF testimony where I advocated for a user group.

        Relative to losing your job if you do not do what they wsnt is pure bs. State personnel rules protect employees and union ruled. Bob Penney tried to get me fired because sport fisherman do not want the truth if the facts go against their allocative positions. In contrast some of your funding sources could dry up and this article is a good example of writing to the choir. I just asked that you be honest in the discussion which you not. The over escapement issue (ADFG has numerous publications justifying goals based on over escapement data), the vale of sport caught vs commercial is another example. Comparing sport at tens of dollars. vs commercial at 2 per pound is technically invalid and you know. Reports to the Government go into detail on this flawed comparison. For example commercial brings new money to the State. There numerous other examples

        Craig you can serve a valuable purpose if you are complete in the discussion
        As it stands now you are no better than a Bob Penny mouthpiece

      • OK, so the short answer is that “no case involving an EEZ closure has ever gone to the Supreme Court.” That’s what I thought. I’m well familiar with the rest of the litigation. I’ve read most of it and listened in on the entirety of the last hearing.

        The judge did not rule in UCIDA’s favor. In fact, it was the opposite. UCIDA appealed for immediate action and the judge ruled it was going to have to wait until the NPFMC process was complete. The deadline was set long ago by the District Court judge, who basically went with the timeline NOAA gave him for how long this would all take.

        There is nothing in the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation Act to stop any council from closing any part of any EEZ to any sort of fishing. The Atlantic EEZ is not only closed to salmon fishing, it is closed to any retention of incidentally caught salmon. The courts never ruled the feds can’t close an EEZ in Alaska. The courts ruled the feds can’t forfeit management to the state IN the EEZ without going through the legally required process of developing a fishery management plan (FMP).

        Going through that process and deciding the best public policy option is to simply close the EEZ is definitely within the NPFMC’s prerogative.

        I do commend you for steering clear of putting your biases in writing. If you think that means you don’t have any, you’re only fooling yourself. I’ve happily admitted mine many times:

        I think the policy of the state of Alaska should be to get maximum economic value out of its salmon resource as it tries to get maximum value out of its other common property resources.

        In most of the state, that value is almost solely in commercial harvests. In Cook Inlet, the situation gets far more complicated and unfortunately, because of the mixed stock nature of the fishery, the commercial fishery is the tail that shakes the dog.

        Thus, to control the dog, you need to deal with the tail.

        Personally, I don’t give a shit who catches the fish. I don’t fish much anymore, and if they shut down the entire non-commercial harvest it wouldn’t upset me on a personal level. It would be stupidity on a colossal level in terms of state economic policy, but I can’t imagine sweating the loss of the fishing opportunity. As a recreational activity, it’s just not one of those things that drives me anymore. Go figure.

        Your other comments here just make me wonder what kind of world you lived in. Bureaucracies have all kinds of ways to make life uncomfortable for those who don’t go along. You lived in one dominated by commercial fishing interests. Bob Penney trying to get you fired from ADF&G in that situation would be like Joe Miller trying to get Julia O’Malley fired from the Anchorage Daily News for being a progressive.

        Suffice to say that sort of thing doesn’t happen. Ergo it’s meaningless.

        I’m not even going to bother to respond to your comments on the economics of this because those comments are so out of touch with economic reality as to be mindboggling. The commercial harvest in the Inlet is fixed and in decline in real dollars. Not only does it not bring “new money” into the state; it can’t bring new money into the state because there is no way for it to increase the value of the commodity.

        The only way to increase the value of the commodity is to ship it out of here in the coolers of tourists instead of the cargo containers of the commercial fishery. Catching fish with a rod and reel is orders of magnitude more inefficient than catching fish with a gillnet.

        As a result, the rod and reel fishermen need to spend a lot more money per fish to harvest a salmon. That increases the value of the commodity. This is basic economics.

        Because of the rod-and-reel inefficiency, you also don’t want to put more fish in rivers than the economic return justifies because then you’re losing the economic value of the fish that can be harvested at far less cost in the commercial fishery.

        What one wants to do from an economic management standpoint is hit the sweet spot where the state gets the maximum economic bang per salmon. But you’ve never been an advocate for wise economic management; you’ve been an advocate for maximum commercial harvest.

        Period. End of discussion.

        So instead of debating the economic realities of fisheries management, you resort to lobbing accusations that those who believe the state should seek maximum economic return from its common property resources are mouthpieces for bogeyman Bob Penney.

        It’s behavior beneath an educated and intelligent man that sadly illustrates the very biases you claim you lack.

  4. Each drainage is it’s individual petri dish, but a few rivers in Bristol Bay will soon be proving or disproving over-escapement, having grossly over-escaped year over year.

    Since there is a term for having too many salmon in a river system that claims too many salmon will reduce production in that river system, is there also a term for having too many salmon in an entire ecosystem that claims too many salmon will reduce production in that entire ecosystem? In other words if putting too many fish up a river causes a decrease in production because the river system does not have the carrying capacity, then why wouldn’t the ocean also have a certain carry capacity? And does dumping billions of small salmon into the ocean have an effect the way dumping hundreds of thousands or millions of extra salmon into a river system may or may not. If UCIDA can answer that question then that’s news to me.

  5. Hi Gunner.
    Greed and MSY. Yep! In the context these terms are being used, they are synonyms. Please don’t try to sell that MSY means more reasonable opportunity for any users other than the commercial gill netters. That user group could not care less about personal use and sports fish users. At one time over sixty years ago they had the fishery to themselves. But now there are hundreds of thousands of Alaskans who just want their fair share of this common property resource. The commercial fleet in Upper Cook Inlet has disdain for this concept. Regrettably and in part because they have not been reasonable, their fisheries have an expiration date. Unknown but inevitable.

    • Alaskansfirst.
      I believe all user groups wish to have what they consider to be their “fare share”. The commercial fleet is no exception. I am no scientist, but I do believe that achieving msy would result in maximum harvest and opportunity for all user groups on a more consistent basis, rather than the ups and downs of cycles. Many of us commercial fishermen also sport fish, and I know some that personal use fish,so to say that we could not care less about these fisheries is false. Furthermore, if the commercial boys are ” greedy” for wanting their fare share, wouldn’t the other user groups who want what they consider their fare share be cosidered “greedy “as well ?

  6. This was a risk that members of UCIDA were warned about. The adage “be careful what you wish for” applies.
    It will be very interesting to see how the State manages the salmon fishery between the drift and set net fleets when fishing is removed from federal waters. I see lots of gear conflicts. And worse, a collapse of the value of the limited entry drift and set net permits. All mostly because of greed.

    • Greed? I thought this suit was about managing the fishery for maximum sustained yield as required by the magnuson Steven’s act, instead of managing it for allocation purposes as it is now.

      • Gunner: Have you ever read the 170-page MSA? It’s based on OY, not MSY.

        It’s key reference to MSY comes in the definitions section where it says this:

        “(33) The term “optimum”, with respect to the yield from a fishery, means the amount of fish which—
        “(A) will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;
        “(B) is prescribed as such on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and
        “(C) in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield in such fishery.”

        The amount of the slop in the language would render the act what some might describe as “lawyer employment legislation.”

        Do you really want a federal appeals court in California trying to interpret A, B and C? The Susitna drainage alone is full of streams that could be biologically categorized as “overfished” because of interceptions by the commercial fleet in Cook Inlet.

        What happens when someone files a new lawsuit to ensure those streams are managed to “provide for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield…?”

        And A.) alone would appear to argue for a set allocation for the “recreational opportunities” to start with, and then there is that reference to “marine ecosystems.”

        A sharp lawyer is going to look at that and say, “but salmon have a life history that stretches beyond the marine environment. Under NEPA, NOAA can’t just manage for the ‘marine ecosystem.’ If NOAA is going to manage salmon in Cook Inlet, it has to manage for the entire ecosystem.

        “NEPA established a national policy ‘to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.’

        “Ignoring the freshwater influences of salmon is not fostering or promoting the general welfare of nature.”

        And then we’re into allocation for bears, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden char, gulls, eagles, even the forest that benefits from nutrients from dead salmon.

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