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Trade groups and state unhappy with federal EEZ management plan in public comments

Sean McDermott
Commercial fishing vessels in the Homer Harbor.

Public comment is in for a NOAA Fisheries management plan for Cook Inlet’s most productive drift fishing waters. In nearly 90 submitted public comments, cities, tribes, trade organizations and the state commissioner of Fish and Game express mixed and negative reactions to the plan.

The Cook Inlet Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, was the subject of a lawsuit by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association over management of the fishery, which starts three miles offshore and stretches from south of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point. In response, the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council closed the fishery in 2020, which was met with protest by Kenai Peninsula commercial fishermen.

The drift association sued to overturn that decision and the state reopened the fishery for the 2022 season, but the council was tasked, under court order, with selecting a new plan by 2024.

However, when the council met to discuss four management plans last April, it chose to take no action. Council members worried then about what would happen if the plan fell to the feds, and in October, NOAA Fisheries published its management plan.

That plan, called Amendment 16, would see federal management

of the EEZ and state management of state waters. The proposal included new rules — commercial drift gillnet fishing would be allowed for 12-hour periods on Mondays and Thursdays, from June 19 to Aug. 15, or until catch limits are met, and vessels would not be allowed to participate in both the federal and state fisheries.

Courtesy Photo
The Cook Inlet Exclusive Economic Zone in red.

NOAA also writes that the plan’s purpose is to “promote the goals and objectives of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”

The agency accepted public comments on the plan through mid-December. Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang submitted a five-page letter expressing “significant concerns” with the management plan.

He wrote that it conflicts with state measures, which include managing the mixed-species fishery with the weakest stock in mind, and different open dates for the drift gillnet fishery. He concludes by saying if Amendment 16 is adopted, the state will continue to manage its waters as required by the Alaska Constitution and its regulatory obligations.

“The state can only cooperate with [NOAA] inseason management of the EEZ salmon fishery until there is a divergence with State management,” he writes.

Commercial fishing organizations were also unhappy with the plan in their comments. The Alaska Salmon Alliance laid out 14 grievances with Amendment 16, like not factoring in historic over escapement, not using real-time data to set harvest limits, a concern of inequitable privileges between different types of fishing and the splitting of state and federal fisheries.

President Nate Berga writes that forcing fishermen to choose between the EEZ and state-managed waters will be prohibitive and complex to regulate.

“This requirement is extremely inefficient, requires duplicative effort, greatly increases the cost of operation for the harvesters and seafood processors and doesn’t allow for the well-known variations in fish movement or run timing,” Berga said.

Other commercial fishing groups, including the North Pacific Fisheries Association and Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund submitted similar complaints, often highlighting contradictions with the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

In the plan, NOAA says sportfishing accounts for about .01% of the salmon caught in the EEZ. But sportfishing organizations, including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the American Sportfishing Association, were still strongly opposed to the plan in their comments, advocating instead for what they characterize as more nuanced state management.

The central peninsula’s federally recognized tribes all submitted letters, many showing disappointment with the lack of subsistence fishery proposed for the EEZ. The Ninilchik Traditional Council writes in its letter that the plan violates the Magnuson-Stevens Act by not accounting for subsistence fishing or the tribes that can participate in it.

“Indigenous Peoples cannot be held responsible for regulatory restrictions beyond their control,” writes Executive Director Ivan Encelewski. “The fact that commercial and recreational interests are accounted for in the [fishery management plan] but that no Tribal fishery or subsistence fishing is allowed, is to say the least, disheartening.”

The Salamatof Tribe also requested the amendment include a subsistence fishery, something the EEZ has not had in the past, describing it as “long overdue.” In its letter, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe writes that it is legally owed direct consultation with NOAA before any decisions are made, and requests a direct meeting to discuss the “significant implications” of the amendment, although there are no details about the tribe’s impression of the proposal.

While the city of Kenai submitted a short comment encouraging NOAA to adopt a plan that “benefits all users for generations to come,” the city of Soldotna was more specific. In a three-page letter, Mayor Paul Whitney wrote that the city supports Amendment 16 but suggests major changes, which include not separating the fishery into state and federally managed sections and not regulating for too high of escapement goals.

The state Board of Fisheries is set to discuss the proposed plan at its Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting at the end of February.

Correction: The proposed management plan would allow fishing in the EEZ two days a week, not four. The error has been corrected.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.