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.
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.
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.