Cook Inlet fisheries under attack

Jan 28, 2021

  Cook Inlet commercial fisheries have been under a lot of pressure lately, much of it coming from the State of Alaska and federal government. 
Homer Mayor Ken Castnter, actually mentioned the problems during Monday night’s city council meeting, when he described talking with Governor Mike Dunleavy.
“And it was a 40 minute conversation. Mayor Ryan Gabriel from Kenai joined in and both of us again, expressed our dismay about the North Pacific management council's actions on closing Lower Cook Inlet to commercial fishing,” Castner said.
The topic was among others on yesterday’s Coffee Table with Kathleen Gustafson, where guests and callers talked about potential closures of fishing areas, and of oil and gas lease sales which could further disrupt fisheries.
Robert Ruffner of Kenai, a one-time Alaska Board of Fisheries member, said the Dunleavy administration was out front in getting the waters closed.
“The state of Alaska is the one that led the charge to close that area. While at the same time, they're talking about promoting economic development and helping to prop up our local economy. To fix this problem, what has to happen is that the state has to change their position and convince the council that closing that area was the wrong decision. Short of that, there really is no other entity that can help resolve that.”
Ruffner said the rule passed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has not yet been enacted by the United States Secretary of Commerce, so stakeholders cannot yet sue. Additionally, there is a new Secretary of Commerce under the Biden Administration, and Trump-era decisions will likely be closely reviewed.
A caller to the Coffee Table named Steve put some blame on the Kenai River Sportsfishing Association. It has long lobbied to hamper commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, to benefit sports-fishing interests in Anchorage who fish the Kenai River.
“At the risk of … seeding division, I couldn’t help but wonder over the many years on the Kenai Peninsula here, there's been conflict with the sport and commercial fisheries. And the Kenai River Sportsfishing Association become quite powerful and influential with this particular governor. I just wonder if this plays into the politics of this decision. And perhaps there's no way of knowing, but it smells of the same old politics to me in a way,” he said.
The Kenai River Sportsfishing Association’s former executive director, Ricky Gease (geese) is currently Dunleavy’s Director of Alaska Parks, which has recently announced a plan to close the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery in Kachemak Bay State Park.
Dave Martin is the president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the lobbying group for Cook Inlet driftnet fishermen. He sees the course the state is on as one lined out by Mike Dunleavy before he was governor. 
“People remember Dunleavy was a Senator before he campaigned on closing the inlet, to commercial fishing to put all the salmon up into the Northern district that they could. And since he became governor, he's kind of going along that same line at a fast track to the commissioner level restricting the fisheries.”
Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper pointed out the inconsistencies in how the federal government is treating fisheries and fishing families.
“You know, there's an incredible disconnect that we're seeing here in Lower Cook Inlet. So on one hand, you've got one arm in the federal government, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which for all intents and purposes is now just become an arm of the oil and gas industry. The fact that they won't come on and talk to the public on radio is indicative of that. And then on the other hand, you've got fisheries managers and the National Marine Fishery Service who closed the Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska last year. And for the first time ever, they cited climate change as the reason for low population numbers,” Shavelson said. “So you've got one arm of the federal government pushing oil and gas development, which is going to aggravate climate change and another closing, a vital fishery that really plays an important role in the economies and for the families in Homer, in the lower peninsula.”
Homer Representative Sarah Vance has prefiled a bill to block the closure of the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. The Alaska Legislature convened this week.