Big losers

Unhappy with how the Alaska Board of Fisheries was managing the waters that lap at the doorstep of Alaska’s urban core, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA) – the powerful commercial fishing lobby that long dictated salmon management there – in 2013 filed a lawsuit demanding a federal, management takeover in the center of the 180-mile long fiord that stabs into the state’s midsection.

After spending unknown tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys as the case dragged its way through the federal court system, they won big.

And on Monday they lost everything.

Acting on a federal court judge’s order to create a salmon fishing plan for the federal waters in the Inlet, the North Pacific Management Council (NPFMC) – an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department – took an unprecedented action.

It accepted the state of Alaska’s argument that adequate numbers of salmon bound for Inlet streams and river can be commercially caught in state waters and simply ordered the closure of federal waters to commercial salmon fishing.

The decision shocked pretty much everyone involved with the fishery politics of Alaska.

“The fix was in,” UCIDA charged on its Facebook page, where it lambasted Alaska Deputy Commissioner of Fish and Game Rachel Baker for suggesting to the Council that regulation of a fishery in what is called the federal government’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from three to 200 miles off state coastlines would do little but boost the cost of fishery management for both the state and federal governments.

The Federal EEZ in red/NPFMC

Losers and winners

“Baker also said, many, many times, that the extra costs of managing the Cook Inlet fishery would be just too unreasonable if they had to work with the federal government,” the post said. “In other words, a few additional management expenses would not be worth preserving a historic, valuable commercial fishery and all of the communities that depend on commercial fishing.”

Driftnet fishermen who work the middle of the Inlet from boats have argued closing the federal pool of water south of Ninilchik would destroy the commercial fishing industry on the Kenai Peninsula even though most of the commercial fishing permits are held by setnetters who fish within state waters that extend three miles out from the coast.

And state fisheries managers contend there is plenty of water north and east of Ninilchik in which to prosecute an offshore driftnet fishery. Still many believe management shifts are likely to boost the setnet catch at the cost of the drifters, who’ve long pulled the levers of power in Inlet fishtics.

The UCIDA post today parrotted the claims of Democrat activists that the Council’s action was orchestrated by Republic Gov. Mike Dunleavy as a payback to businessman and Dunleavy supporter Bob Penney. One of the founders of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Penney has long advocated for allowing more salmon to escape commercial nets to fill the river along the banks of which he owns a home.

Penney, however, has generally been a supporter of the drift fishery which takes places largely out of sight off the Kenai coast and catches few king salmon, the fish most prized by anglers. Penney’s beef was always with the Kenai setnet fisheries that have historically posted significant catches of big, angler-prized king salmon.

Penney in 2015 backed a ballot initiative to eliminate what he called the setnet “curtains of death” threatening kings in the Inlet, but the Alaska courts refused to allow the initiative on the ballot. Penney said then it was better to catch sockeyes – the commercial fisheries’ money fish – offshore where the bycatch of kings is small.

When it comes to fish, Penney has historically been a political switch hitter as well. He was a big backer of Democrat Tony Knowles, who served two terms from 1994 to 2002. About all Knowles and Dunleavy have in common is support for managing Inlet salmon for the maximum economic return to the state and to provide food for Alaskans.

An investor in a commercial fish processing business, Penney has not publicly expressed any view on the mid-Inlet closure, but he did pump a lot of money into Dunleavy’s effort to replace former Gov. Bill Walker, who was deep in the pocket of the Inlet’s commercial fishermen.

Walker appointed UCIDA executive director Roland Maw to the Board of Fisheries and stood by him, literally, even after it was discovered he was illegally claiming to be a resident of both the states of Montana and Alaska in order to obtain cheaper resident hunting and fishing licenses.

Maw resigned from the Board in the wake of that discovery. He was later indicted on multiple counts of illegally claiming Alaska permanent fund dividends (PFDs) available only to Alaska residents.

More than four years on, Maw is still awaiting trial on five felonies related to PFD theft. The next hearing is set for March.

His legal problems have not, however, discouraged him from continuing to lobby for UCIDA’s interests with UCIDA’s support. 

Common sense

While UCIDA might not have liked the Council’s action, there is no doubt closing the federal pool of water in the lower, center of the Inlet allowed the council to sidestep an enduring and never-ending fishery management nightmare.

Various Fish Boards have over the years spent tens of thousands of hours arguing over salmon allocation in the 49th state’s most politically contested fishery, and state fishery managers have spent even more time researching and writing Inlet management reports and fishery studies.

The Council’s action frees it from having to go through this every year and saves who knows how much money for federal taxpayers who would have been forced to foot the bill for annual plans written by the employees of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

State management plans and studies of the Inlet’s commercial, sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries written since the 1980s could at this point fill a small library.

And the plans have never satisfied everyone.

No fishermen – not those who fish for money, not those who fish for food, and not those who fish for fun – have ever been happy with the share of salmon allocated their fisheries. The result has been a decades-long dispute that not even King Solomon could settle. 

For the first of these decades, commercial fishermen got more than their share. When returns of sockeye salmon to the Inlet boomed in the 1980s, they were the big winners.

The approximately 1,300 commercial permit holders were then netting an average of 4.4 million, top-of-the-market sockeye per year – about four times above the average harvest for the 1970s.

Disputes at that time largely revolved around the by-catch of kings in indiscriminate net fisheries that can’t tell one salmon from another.

The largest of the Pacific salmon, kings – or Chinook as they are called elsewhere – once supported hundreds of Kenai Peninsula fishing guides and made the Kenai River famous.

 Already well known nationally at the start of the ’80s, the gray-green glacial stream flowing out of the Kenai Mountains became world-famous in 1985 when the late Les Anderson, a Soldotna auto dealer, landed a world-record Chinook of 97-pounds, 4 ounces.

Over the course of the years that followed, anglers flocked to the river hoping to be the lucky fisherman to catch a mythical 100-pounder with rod and reel, and sportfishing groups feuded with commercial fishermen over the Chinook bycatch to which some commercial fishermen thought they were entitled given that they’d always caught some kings.

The problem facing the Board of Fish then was the changing nature of the times. By the 1980s, the kings were already orders-of-magnitude more valuable to the state economy in the sport fishery than in the commercial fishery.

Lower 48 fishing dudes were willing to spend big money to journey to Alaska just for the hope of catching a trophy size king of 60 pounds or more.

Those days didn’t last.

For reasons still scientifically undetermined – stiffer competition for food in the ocean is suspected by some – kings started getting smaller and smaller as the new millennium began, and by the 2010s, their numbers were spiraling downward as well.

By mid-decade, 40 percent of the guides once licensed to fish the river were gone, and those that were left increasingly shifted their attention to the harvest of other species of salmon. 

Thus began a push for greater escapements of sockeye and coho (silver) salmon into the Kenai, the state’s most popular stream for both Alaskan and visiting anglers.

Disagreements were only heightened by the downward trend of sockeye returns. Average annual numbers are now about three-quarters of what they were in the ’80s.

The reduction is largely thought due to declining ocean productivity, which has recently been fingered as the cause of a 65 percent drop in king numbers from the Gulf of Alaska south all the way to Northern California. 

Were declines in fish numbers not enough, tourism interests and anglers in the Matanuska- Susitna Borough – a booming bedroom community north of Anchorage –  in recent years began demanding bigger salmon escapements to the Susitna and Yentna rivers, and their many tributaries.

That made for another headache for the Fish Board. The only way to put more salmon up the Susitna and Yentna is to reduce the interception of Susitna-Yentna bound salmon in the Inlet. That has generally meant only a small reduction in commercial harvests, but often big changes in the way commercial fishermen had long prosecuted the fishery.

All of which adds more fuel to the fire of never-ending Inlet fish wars. Given this history, it’s not hard to see why the Council might want to avoid grabbing onto an Inlet tarbaby.








15 replies »

  1. I cannot believe the misinformation and misinformed on this issues Craig you could do better. First no one has lost. Until a plan is written , goes through a public review, goes through a court challenge, and other agencies have a say no one has lost or won. Next in theory this does not change the harvest allocation. The State said they can manage to meet goals. If the goals do not change the harvest is the same. The fishing area and time may change.

    Also people read the first suit. It asks for an FMP be updated since one was in effect from the early 80’s. That update deals with 10 national standards and other provisions of M/S like habitat protection and invasive species. So far the Feds have ignored these and from the first case we know an FMP must deal with this issue. Also sport fisheries take place in the EEZ so an FMP must deal with State co-management.

    Bottom line is no one knows how this will turn out. Comments like beluga whales win are silly. Beluga whales are already protected under the ESA and the FMP must deal with the ESA recommendations. Sport fisherman could lose fish if king and coho or win – who knows?

    So keep silent and let this play out to see who benefits

  2. Hold the applause folks! The Alternative 4 proposal almost certainly violates the Feds own Magnuson – Stevens Act & as such will almost certainly be challenged in Court. The State is acting like a schizophrenic child here. This whole fiasco was largely brought on by never proven claims that commercial salmon fishermen in the Inlet were adversely impacting King Salmon returns to the Kenai River. If there is a perceived impact on Kings it would almost certainly occur within a few miles of the coast line where King Salmon tend to run. So tell me again – how does forcing hundreds of gillnet boats into these near shore waters help save our King Salmon? Wouldn’t it be much better to keep them far offshore where their interaction with Kings is minimal? We need new leadership at the ADF&G!

    • Food, “this whole fiasco”, as you call it was brought on by UCIDA because of their claim that the State was allowing too many fish to spawn. They claimed that the State was not managing for MSY which is what the Feds try to achieve. Alaska’s constitution requires that the resource be managed on the principal of sustained yield for the maximum benefit of its people. That is far different from the Fed’s mandate.
      Chinook harvest issues had little or nothing to do with this lawsuit.

  3. There is more going on with the decline in Chinook size and productivity than mentioned here. Look to selective harvest of genetically large segments of the population, riparian habitat deterioration, spawning stream warming and other factors subject to active careful research before claiming solution. Susitna Valley and Kenai Peninsula salmon spawning streams are warming. 64 °F is sort of an upper limit for them. The Deska (producing more than 20% of the Chinook escapement for the Susitna) saw nearly 82 °F in 2019, the Anchor 73 °F. Salmon need cold oxygen rich spawning water, pike like hotter water. Pike populations are increasing. Pike eat salmon.

    I’m not convinced the drift fleet harvest has to decrease. How the fishery is actually prosecuted will determine the outcome. There will probably be more combat fishing but the density of nets will generally be higher – making it harder for fish to escape the drift nets on their way into State waters. Remember, they are all headed to State river waters and have to cross that boundary to get there.

    • A Sincere Question Steve Stine. How did you get your head up your ass! … as far to your shoulders? Amazing,! – how ill-informed your general public really are?

  4. The bomb vest of the UCIDA jihadists blew up on them and took many innocent gillnetters with them.

    Let’s not forget that UCIDA favored none of the NPFMC proposals, as written. Their demand – stated many times on the record – is for Fed control of all the salmon everywhere in the Inlet. Yes, they want Fed control not just in the EEZ, but in State waters too, including freshwater. They want Fed oversight of escapement, allocations, seasons, bag limits, everything. And in the end, they are convinced that is the best path for their prosperity. Fed control will bring them back to the good ol’ days.

    BOOM! oops. Guess that didn’t work.

  5. The rule goes into effect in 2022. If UCIDA is smart they will start a dialogue with other users and with the State to find some common ground. It is not too late to mitigate their losses. But they will have to be reasonable a characteristic they have been lacking

    • Rod,
      If you are really concerned about the belugas ,point your fingers at hilcorp and its aging platforms pumping their sludge into the inlet. A while back, the drift fleet voluntarily carried observers,which I took part in, for two seasons. Zero interactions with belugas were observed.You would think a director of a.o.c would be better informed.

  6. The federal waters in Cook Inlet are one of three historic areas where state managed commercial salmon fishery has occurred.

    What impacts, if any, does this decision foreshadow for the remaining two areas – the federal waters in Area M (Sand Point) along the Alaska Peninsula, and the federal waters off the Copper River (Cordova) in the Prince William Sound. Area M fishermen and CDFU (Cordova District Fishermen United) also are politically connected and have their own long interesting history at the state level Board of Fish where multiple, evolving state fishery management plans.

    But they didn’t the state management of these two salmon fisheries in federal waters to federal court.

    How does this decision by the NPFMC impact management of those two areas, and will the court allow fishing in those federal waters to continue?

  7. Old observation: Be careful what you wish for.

    That being said, there is still a solution out there. And that is to trade in as many commfish permits as possible for onshore / offshore land / waters to set up a fish farming operation for salmon. The future is now. Cheers –

  8. The fish are the winners here. As are the tens of thousands of sports users in the Anchorage bowl. Now they will see many more fish in their local waters.
    The UCIDA leadership failed its members. If I were a Drift Gill net Permit holder in UCI, I would be enraged and want nothing more to do with that organization. My permit value just went down, maybe by 50%! As,perhaps, did my future harvest.

  9. Completely shot themselves in the foot. You know they won’t go away quietly because it’s “their fish.”

  10. Wow . Well maybe management can now be improved and targeted better. Mid inlet fishing was just a foolish disaster because it was so un selective. Good on the feds . Each drainage couldn’t be correctly managed. Perhaps thats why susitna drainages are in disastrous situation. I hope this improoves management tools . Craig once said nets should be less depth to reduce king catches . A truly good idea. How many mesh deep would be best for target species and reduce king catches ? I wonder if more kings are caught in mid inlet than known and just drop out due due to weight and barely being hooked on a few teeth in bottom mesh or corners of net . The way the reel pulls up would drop out the kings who were not fully meshed . Kings must be brought back to prominence. I wonder if net mesh size is allowing smaller reds to escape and percentage wise effect the breeding stock . More small fish escape thus breed . I hope the state gets on the ball and keeps inlet commercial fishers in the action. Be travesty if that section was lost in full even if it did help sports fishing economy. We need everyone .

Leave a Reply