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.
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.
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.
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.
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.