Never-ending fight

Cook iInlet as featured on the National Geographic Channel almost a decade ago

The 568 commercial fishermen who hold permits to snag salmon in Cook Inlet have won a major battle in the state’s longest-running and most contentious fish war.

U.S. District Court Judge Joshua M. Kindred on Tuesday ruled that the federal government cannot forfeit to the state the authority to manage salmon in the nearly 200-mile long, subarctic fiord that slashes into the 49th state’s underbelly to lap at the beaches of the state’s largest city.

The essence of the decision in Kindred’s long-winded, 54-page ruling is that “the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) decision to prohibit commercial salmon fishing in the Cook Inlet Exclusive Economic Zone (federal waters from three to 200 miles off the coast) is arbitrary and capricious because it delegates conservation and management measures to the state of Alaska in violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”

What this ruling will mean in the short term, let alone the long term, is at the moment unclear.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which advises (or some would say directs) NMFS on the management of fisheries in the federal waters off Alaska’s coast had advised closing the federal waters of the Inlet to driftnet fishing after the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) first forced the management battle into court.

The Council didn’t want federal managers to have to deal with what is considered Alaska’s biggest fishery management tar baby. On an average annual basis, the Inlet produces 2 percent or less of the Alaska salmon harvest while stirring up no end of vitriol.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries has spent tens of thousands of hours meditating salmon allocations between the various Inlet interests and seldom managed to make anyone happy.

Bigger share

UCIDA believes its members, who already catch the largest share of Inlet salmon, would get to catch more fish under federal management than state management. They believe the state has unfairly favored the interests of anglers, tourist businesses, personal-use dip netters, and subsistence fishermen over the interests of commercial fishermen.

The group has publicly said it doesn’t want federal management of salmon fisheries in Alaska while pushing for federal management of salmon fisheries in Alaska.

The issue of federal management is a touchy one in the 49th state. A major part of the drive for statehood was aimed at bringing salmon management under state control in the belief federal managers had badly mismanaged Alaska salmon.

“Alaska did not always have healthy salmon stocks. Prior to statehood, the federal government was responsible for salmon management in Alaska. Overfishing was a major factor in the declines of the Alaska salmon fishery that occurred between 1940 and the time of statehood (in) 1959,” fisheries biologists Charles Meachum and John Clark observed in history written for the Alaska Fishery Research Bulletin in 1994.

“The federal government failed to provide sound management practices needed to sustain Alaska salmon fisheries. Further, the federal government failed to provide the financial resources needed to manage and research salmon stocks and fisheries such that fishing could be properly regulated and depressed stocks could be rehabilitated.

“Salmon stocks and the fishing industry were in such bad shape that President Eisenhower declared Alaska a federal disaster area in 1953. This action was unique in that this disaster was attributed to an act of man rather than an act of nature.

“At the time of statehood in 1959, statewide harvests totaled only about 25 million salmon, the lowest annual harvest since 1900 and a level equivalent to less than 20 percent of current sustainable production.”

Since that paper was written, the statewide sustainable production has only continued to climb. Annual harvests that averaged 157.5 million salmon in the 1990s climbed to 167.4 million per year in the 2000s and hit 180 million for the 2000s.

The federal performance of the late 1950s would now amount to about 14 percent of the current sustainable production, but in fairness to federal managers, scientists now agree federal managers were hampered by cold water in the Gulf of Alaska in the 1940s and ’50s. The colder waters were less productive than those in recent times.

And though salmon harvests have steadily gone up decade by decade, they have not gone up equally for all species or all regions and have, in places, declined. The Inlet is one of the places in decline.

Returns of Chinooks, the big “kings” as Alaskans call them, have crashed, and returns of sockeyes – the money fish for UCIDA members – have dropped. As those sockeye catches have fallen, UCIDA activists have accused the state of letting too many sockeyes escape their nets to enter area streams and rivers to spawn.

Dreaded over-escapement

They believe the fish then so crowd the spawning beds that their spawning success declines, leading to weaker and weaker runs. This disaster, termed “over-escapement,” has been dismissed by scientists as a rare and self-remedying problem,  but it persists as a UCIDA belief.

UCIDA was Wednesday trumpeting Kindred’s decision as “UCIDA wins again,” and pushing its view that “salmon are a national resource and federal law requires that they be managed in the national interest.”

UCIDA’s view of the “national interest” is that the commercial harvest of sockeye in the Inlet should be maximized to feed the nation though in terms of national and global salmon markets the Inlet harvest doesn’t amount to much more than a fly on the but of an elephant.

About 75 percent of the salmon eaten around the world today comes from farms where production continues to grow. The wild-caught fish are split between harvests in Russia and the U.S. with the bulk of the harvest coming in the form of sockeyes in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and pink salmon on Kodiak Island, in Prince William Sound and in the Alaska Panhandle.

What the average American might think of as the “national interest” for managing Alaska salmon is anyone’s guess, but feeding grizzly bears and beluga whales first might well come out ahead of providing salmon for any human use.

State managers now make no allocation for wildlife, but the large escapements under state management do provide surplus salmon that help support wild predators.

Only time will tell whether UCIDA won a real victory here or a phyric one. The federal government hasn’t always seen commercial harvests as the highest and best use of wild fisheries.

Commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico last month sued after NMFS announced it was boosting the red grouper quota for recreational fishing from 24 to 40.7 percent of the catch and reducing the commercial share from 76 percent to 59.3 percent.

Sounding a lot like UCIDA, the Gulf Coast Seafood Alliance, a commercial fishermen-dominated group, charged that the change would “take fish from working families, markets, restaurants and consumers, even though this decision comes as a result of flawed procedures, inaccuracies and inadequacies in their economic analysis, and numerous legal precedents which will be violated.”

The group did not say how many “working families” were eating red grouper filets going for $30 to $70 per pound, although the Wild Seafood Market, which claims to be “Florida’s top supplier of sustainably sourced red grouper,” was offering whole fish at $10 per pound with the warning that a “three-pound Grouper (is) likely to yield 1 to 1.5 pounds of fish.”

Kindred’s ruling is unlikely to end the Inlet fish war, but it could shift it to a new battlefield, and the battles fought there are unlikely to look all that much different than those contested before the state Board of Fisheries for decades now.








20 replies »

  1. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a good law. Judge Kindred called it like it is. Time to stop beating up on the drifters. The high roller days are gone. Those of us still in it are scratching out a modest living. We provide top shelf seafood for those unable or disinclined to catch it themselves. What’s wrong with that? Independent journalist soliciting donations or panhandling propagandist?

    • Nobody is beating up anybody. And you’re right, the high-roller days are gone, possibly forever. Consider $1 dollar per pound for Bristol Bay sockeye and fuel at $5 per gallon or so.

      I feel for Inlet drifters scratching out a living anywhere in this state. Most of those in the Inlet now hobbyists basically commercial fishing for sport. I have actually suggested to some dipnet friends that they join that club in that they thoroughly seem to get off on netting and clubbing salmon.

      And there is nothing is wrong with providing a product for sale to the public, but let’s be real, you’re providing a product for sale to the public. Alaska oil and gas producers do the same thing, and I’d guess most people consider their product more important than yours. That doesn’t mean they get unlimited or carte blanche use of the resource.

      The allocation of Inlet salmon ain’t an easy issue. They are a resource that ought to be managed for highest economic return but nobody seems to to want to go there.

      • That’s a good idea. Encourage all your friends to buy a salmon permit and give it a try. They’ll soon find your portrayal inaccurate. Most of us are not “commercial fishing for sport”. It’s too expensive, too stressful, too unreliable, too much red tape and they’ll be vilified (“get off on netting and clubbing”). If I want to sport fish, I’ll just do that.

        There’ll be claims that they have unlimited use of a resource. Under normal circumstances, they’ll get two 12 hour fishing periods per week. That’s 24 hours of a 168 hour week or 14.3%. Unlimited?

        Most of us are fishing to make money, because we enjoy a challenge, to match our wits against the forces of nature and for the sense of independence it provides. But I’ve learned my lesson and filed my intent to transfer. Tell your friends Medred. My permit’s up for sale.

      • Chris: Please. I sympathize with your lack of fishing time, and with the difficulty of making money in the Cook Inlet fishery which was over capitalized from the the very beginning of limited entry. High fish prices and historically high runs covered that problem for a while, but no longer. And with sockeye and fuel prices what they are today, it’s got to be hell for someone trying to make much of a profit off that fishery.

        Spare me, however, the bullshit about fishing time. It’s not about how many hours anyone gets to fish; it’s about how many fish one catches in the amount of time allowed. I’m sure if you told the Board of Fish that you’d like to fish with a 20-foot long net, they’be willing to give you scads more time.

      • Well said chris worley. I have been doing boat maintenance and hanging and mending nets daily since mid April. Just got my insurance renewal quote of $3500. Sure as hell ain’t no hobby, and definitely not sport. Tough but satisfying way to try to eke out a living. Sure would be nice to be able to harvest and market a portion of that 1 million 200thousand reds that went up the kenai in excess of the already inflated( in my opinion) escapement goals. Money that Iwould have spent mostly here in soldotna and kenai,where I live year round. Thanks for your post.

      • Perhaps you’ve heard of the test boat ADFG employs during Cook Inlet salmon seasons. They make short sets, with a drift gill net, at each of six stations strategically located along different depth contours near the southern border of the drift fleets’ district. They fish every day in July that weather permits. The purpose of this test fishery is to give ADFG an idea of how many new fish are moving in to that part of the Inlet each day or in other words, the “flow” of fish.

        Just for grins, let’s imagine that the drift fleet mops up every last one during any given fishing period, completely shuts off that flow. As soon as our nets come out of the water, here comes more fish. Under normal circumstances, that flow of salmon is unimpeded by drift gill nets 85.7% of the time. I’m not asking for more fishing time here. I want to point out to you and your readers that your implication that the drift fleet has “unlimited or carte blanche use of the resource” is false and misleading.

        As for the Board of Fish, consider this which I have taken from Laine Welch’s publication dated March 18, 2022. I miss her by the way. “Currently, only one of the seven Fish Board seats is held by a member from a coastal region-John Jensen of Petersburg- and none is from the commercial fishing sector.” “Yep- the body that regulates pretty much everything to do with commercial fishing in state waters doesn’t have a single commercial fisherman onboard. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Amazing, commented the Fish Ticket by Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.”

        There’s some bullshit out there alright but it’s not mine.

      • Chris, what?

        Seems like Laine needs to do just a modicum of research, all I did was look up Alaska Board of Fish and this is what I found.

        John Jensen lives in Petersburg and participates in crab and halibut fisheries in Southeast Alaska, commercial fisherman. It’s amazing that Laine doesn’t know Jensen is a well know commercial fisherman.

        Märit Carlson-Van Dort was born in Alaska and raised in Southeast Alaska and the southern Alaska Peninsula where she commercial fished for nearly fifteen years, commercial fisherwoman.

        Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River grew up commercial fishing in the Kodiak Island Fishery for twelve years, commercial fisherman.

        McKenzie Mitchell received her B.A. in Economics as well as her M.S. in Resource and Applied Economics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Her graduate degree work was concentrated in fisheries management, worked in commercial fishing management.

        Mike Heimbuch is a lifelong Alaskan and began commercial fishing with his folks in 1963, commercial fisherman.

        “the body that regulates pretty much everything to do with commercial fishing in state waters doesn’t have a single commercial fisherman onboard. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Amazing”

        Amazing because it’s simply not true. And it seems like we’ve found the BS, from the quote you’ve provided Laine seems full of it.

      • Oh a few more things.

        Mike Heimbuch lives in Homer, which upon my latest review is a seaside hamlet world famous for halibut fishing, maybe Homer doesn’t count as a coastal region though?

        Israel Payton also lists deckhand as one of the many jobs he’s done, maybe he wasn’t a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat but I haven’t heard deckhand as a job title for many other jobs.

      • Craig,
        Fishing “time” is not as important as when and where. After july 9, the drift fleet is restricted from fishing inlet wide. Any drifter would prefer to fish 24 hours per week inlet wide than 84 hours per week confined to the corridors. We are limited in net depth,and we need to be able to access the tide rips that bring the salmon up. This is especially true with the warming water temps of recent years.

      • Ok. Steve-O. It’s Chris Worley. Point well taken. And Medred, you deserve credit for posting all this.

      • Chris,

        Is it a drift or setnet permit? I thought about buying a setnet permit a few years ago when Micciche was really pushing the buyback scheme, since that effort failed and he isn’t running for reelection it doesn’t look like as good of a lottery ticket as it once was.

      • Chris – what kind of permit? Where ? How much ? Some one in my family might be looking. Thanks.

      • If you’re curious about the business of fishing, looking at,,,,, and will give you an idea of how it works. These sites contain fisheries news, databases of public information regarding fisheries, fishermen and fishing vessels as well as marketplaces where boats, permits and ifq are bought and sold.

        Thanks again Medred for providing a venue for this discourse.

      • Chris- ive held permits before. . Commercial fishing is dang fun and fast way to make lots of easy money!More money in a month than a large section of population sees in a year . Apparently you were just blowing smoke regarding sale. I thought you wanted out fast and cheap.
        Apparently you want to keep makeing bank ! You don’t want to sell or you would name your price! Good luck killing fish and have a blast ! Nothing much more fun than pulling dollar bills in with a net while you are out on Alaskans great waters!

  2. many Alaskans want a hands off policy by the Feds. though when it comes to pork projects, dollars for everything under the sun, the Fed is expected to cough it up.

    fish & political pundits will weigh in, when the time is right.

    on another note:
    will be interesting to see who gets the nod,
    for Don’s seat.
    How’s that working for you now?
    drill baby drill!
    i can see Russia from my front porch

  3. Interesting subject for Alaskan discussions. The evolution of wild stock salmon in Alaska. As a born and raised Prince William Sound person I’ve watched and worked in the salmon processing industry most of my days.

    I don’t believe anybody can accurately claim that State or Federal management were superior to the other, as too many factors, over time, have influenced the fishery.

    For instance,——The 200 mile limit which removed Japanese harvest of Reds from the North Pacific.—–The water temperature changes which improved escapement survivability of all salmon species.——Water warming in the North Pacific which might be cause for reduced survivability of some salmon.——The elimination of Fish traps.——–The ability of State regulators to move rapidly when unusual conditions threatened a run.—–The inability of State regulators to secure funding for stream rehabilitation as well as providing protection resources necessary to control illegal commercial fishing.——-The limited entry program which helped control illegal commercial fishing.—-The salmon hatcheries (“Private nonprofit corporations (PNP) to operate salmon hatcheries to rehabilitate the state’s depressed salmon fishery in the mid-1970’s, after voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed for limited entry to commercial fisheries and the efficient development of aquaculture.”)——Federal income tax break programs for commercial fisheries.——The introduction of highly profitable salmon row marketing by the Japanese.

  4. The Feds want nothing to do with management of Cook Inlet Salmon. They do not have the resources to manage a fishery that requires many boots on the ground and in vessels to manage and enforce the rules, which have yet to be enacted.
    For example commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet has been conducted only by Limited Entry permit holders. The Feds have no such requirement. How many vessels will be allowed to fish these waters? Will the fishery be limited to gill nets? Will seines be allowed. Will catcher and processor vessels be allowed? Will the feds do the biology to determine allowable catch? Will they provide enforcement.
    Meanwhile the State will continue to manage the salmon harvest in State waters. The problem is that the State will likely not know, in a timely manner, how many salmon are harvested in fed waters. The vast majority of the salmon that will be harvested in federal waters are bound to east side rivers, ie the Kenai and Kasiloff rivers. How can the state assure that escapement goals can be achieved?
    The safest and conservative approach might be for the State to shut down harvest in State waters until it knows exactly what the harvest is in federal waters. UCIDA may find that this court decision is not so good after all.

    The State needs smart policy direction like never before. And the Board of Fisheries needs to address this asap through emergency meetings.

  5. The Norwegians are attempting to solve their fish pen pollution problem by requiring the pens to be relocated every 2 years. They believe this will allow to the sea floor below the pens to recover “naturally”.
    Also of note, they are currently trying to figure out how to deal with an invasive species that has worked its way into northern Norwegian waters from Russia. They fear it will soon inhabit the entire coast of Norway. They want to get rid of it.
    The species: King Crab.

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