In victory for commercial fishermen, court orders reopening of Cook Inlet fishery
Cook Inlet drift anglers can fish in the cove’s federal waters this summer after all.
That’s after a district court judge struck down a federal rule that would have shut down much of the entry to commercial salmon fishing. The fishermen said it would have been a death knell for fishingwhich has 500 drift license holders.
One such permit holder is Erik Huebsch of Kasilof. He is vice-president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which brought the lawsuit. And he said he was happy.
“Opening the EEZ is vital for the fleet,” Huebsch said. “Without the opening of the EEZ, drift fishing is really not viable. This is where we go to catch fish.
The EEZ is the exclusive economic zone of the cove. And those are federal waters that start three nautical miles offshore, south of Kalgin Island.
For years, the management of this EEZ was entrusted to the State. But in 2013, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association sued in a bid to gain more control from the federal government.
The courts sided with the association, and the council that manages fishing in federal waters was tasked with drafting a new salmon management plan. When the state told the council it was not interested in co-managing the fishery with the federal government, the council decided to close that part of the cove entirely to commercial salmon fishing.
This triggered another lawsuit. Cook Inlet drifters argued that a closure does not count as a management plan.
In Tuesday’s decision, Judge Joshua Kindred largely agreed with the fishermen.
He said the federal shutdown was arbitrary and capricious and that the shutdown did not meet national standards – including that it was based on political compromise, not science. He added that the urgency of the impending season meant it was necessary to rescind the rule immediately.
On Wednesday evening, Fish and Game announced that it would reopen the fishery on Thursday.
“Any vessel fishing for salmon in Cook Inlet will be regulated by the State of Alaska under the laws of the State of Alaska,” said Brian Marston, Fish and Game’s regional manager for commercial fishing. Upper Cook Inlet.in a Wednesday recording.
Huebsch said the ruling confirms UCIDA’s position on salmon management is the correct one.
“This is the second court ruling we’ve had in our favour,” he said.
The State of Alaska was an intervening defendant in the case. Representatives from the Alaska Law Department and NOAA Fisheries declined to comment.
The towns of Kenai, Homer and Soldotna all filed amicus briefs supporting fishermen in costume last year, arguing that the economic impact on their towns if there was a shutdown would be severe.
Ken Castner, the mayor of Homer, said this week would normally be the opening of that part of the entrance.
And he said those first salmon deliveries are really important.
“We need these deliveries here, not only for the canneries that operate in Homer, but for all the restaurants that are stocking their fridges and freezers with these first fish from Cook Inlet,” he said.
An impact statement from the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council said the federal area accounts for just under half of revenue from the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery, or about $10 million. Homer has the highest average off-ship value in this part of the cove, at around $2.6 million.
“And we’ve really borne the brunt of the economic loss in this displacement of the fishing fleets that are here,” Castner said. “And it’s a very large fleet fishing in Homer.
He is satisfied with the court’s decision.
But the judge did not take the side of the plaintiffs on all points.
Another case, filed by three Cook Inlet drift fishermen by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, was consolidated with the United Cook Inlet Drift Association case. These fishermen argued that the members of the council had exceeded their authority and that the composition of the council had been formed illegally.
The judge rejected their argument, saying they couldn’t find enough quality to support these claims.
The judge also rejected one of the drift association’s arguments – that the rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act. He said the fishermen had not fleshed out that argument enough to make a convincing NEPA statement.
Beyond this season, the federal government will have to work on a new fisheries management plan. In his ruling, the judge referred the case to NOAA Fisheries for next steps.