Ice chokes the Homer Harbor on Jan. 9, 2020 in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Ice chokes the Homer Harbor on Jan. 9, 2020 in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Cook Inlet salmon fishery issue to be decided by North Pacific Fishery Management Council

Fishermen, processors take issue with option to close waters to commercial fishing

Members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are set to take final action on a Fishery Management Plan for a salmon fishery in Upper Cook Inlet this month, and many within the commercial fishing and processing industries have concerns about one option for that management plan in particular that would close commercial salmon fishing.

The council has four options before it at its meeting starting Dec. 4 for an alternative for federal management of commercial salmon fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, waters of Cook Inlet. The waters were excluded from the council’s Fishery Management Plan in 2012 by amendment. Following that, a group of commercial fishermen and processors sued, and the Ninth Circuit Court found that the council needs to amend the Fishery Management Plan to include the Cook Inlet EEZ waters to be in compliance with the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The council’s action regarding the Fishery Management Plan will only apply to commercial salmon fisheries in the Cook Inlet EEZ, not sportfishing or personal use fishing.

There are four options for the council to choose from:

• Alternative 1: No action and no amendment to the Salmon Fishery Management Plan. This would maintain the status quo which excludes the Cook Inlet EEZ waters and the commercial salmon fishery that happens in them from federal management.

• Alternative 2: Federal management of the commercial fishery with some management measures given to the State of Alaska. This would establish a federal management regime for the commercial salmon fishery while using existing state infrastructure and delegating specific measures to the state.

• Alternative 3: Establish federal management of the commercial salmon fishery in the Cook Inlet EEZ with the council and the National Marine Fisheries Service managing all aspects of the fishery, without management from the State of Alaska. This would result in separate state and federal commercial salmon fisheries.

• Alternative 4: Federal management of the commercial salmon fishery in the Cook Inlet EEZ, and close commercial salmon fishing in those waters.

The Cook Inlet EEZ runs from north of Kenai to Anchor Point. If those waters were to close to commercial salmon fishing, many opponents of the option say it would effectively kill the entire commercial driftnet salmon fishery in Upper Cook Inlet.

Members of the Homer City Council held a special meeting on Nov. 25 and unanimously passed a resolution opposing Alternative 4, stating that it would have a “significant adverse” economic effect on the city.

In addition to Homer, the Kenai City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly also passed legislation specifically opposing Alternative 4.

“There’s sort of this domino effect that could take place … that if you eliminate this area of fishing for the drift fleet you’re eliminating the feedstock of product for the processors,” said Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel at the Nov. 23 meeting where the council’s resolution was passed. “They’re private businesses; there’ll be no reason for them to stick around.”

The Kenai council did not favor one of the other alternatives in their resolution, and neither did Homer’s city council.

The decision will affect the entire fishery, but Homer in particular stands to be hurt financially if Alternative 4 were approved, some of its opponents argue. According to the Homer council’s resolution, Homer has the highest level of vessel participation in the fishery out of any participating community, with an average of 24% of participants and 197 vessels.

Additionally, the vessels based in Homer get the highest gross revenue from the fishery, the resolution states, with an average annual revenue of $5.5 million, or 28.6% of the fishery’s total revenue.

Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, also submitted written comment to the NPFMC opposing Alternative 4 from an economic standpoint. He asserted that now, when the peninsula along with many other regions of the state is struggling in the midst of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, is not the time to institute a measure that would close the fishery’s waters to commercial fishing.

“Now is not the time to eliminate a critical industry in our communities,” Dillon wrote.

The Homer Marine Trades Association also weighed in through written comment as a representative of more than 90 marine businesses in the greater Homer area.

“(The association’s) primary focus is collectively promoting our businesses and supporting vocational education and training, and we purposefully do not get involved in fisheries policy,” President Mark Zeiset wrote in the submitted comment. “However, we feel that the economic damage that Alternative 4 would cause to the Homer community demands our involvement.”

Zeiset wrote that, during the fishery’s season openers, the Homer fleet and vessels from Kenai and Kasilof deliver their catch in Homer. During that early portion of the season, Homer gets a large portion of the landings, he wrote.

“If the Council gives management authority to the federal government and closes the federal waters, most of those landings that traditionally come to Homer will instead go to Kasilof or Kenai,” Zeiset wrote. “That loss of processor activity means a decline in local economic activity and a decline in direct landings revenues to the city.”

Should the fishery’s federal waters be closed to commercial fishing, the association asserts that a large portion of the Homer fleet would base their operations out of northern ports instead, which would cause a decline in moorage revenues, fuel purchasing and other related services.

“The result will be a large economic loss to the city of Homer and the businesses that serve the Cook Inlet fleet, a loss that is certain to have rippling impacts in our community if Homer’s access to this resource is eliminated and remaining efforts shift north,” Zeiset wrote.

It’s not just the southern end of the peninsula that could suffer. Matt Haakenson, fleet manager at Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai, said closing the Cook Inlet EEZ waters to commercial salmon fishing would hurt processors, too. There are only a handful left. Haakenson said that, over the last six years, Kenai has gone from five fish processing companies down to one.

“That leaves us as the primary buyer of salmon in Cook Inlet,” Haakenson said.

Pacific Star Seafoods does also buy tanner crab, halibut, black cod and more, but Haakenson said that without salmon coming directly to the dock from commercial fishermen, it would be hard to make their business continue to make sense.

Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) and Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), also submitted comment to the NPFMC opposing Alternative 4. Micciche is also a commercial fisherman. In his letter, he also took issue with the late addition of Alternative 4, saying that it has not been vetted or supported by analysis.

“While a single gear type has been the focus here, there is much more at stake,” Micciche wrote. “This has clearly left the processing sector as well as the coastal communities I represent out of the decision-making process.”

Beyond the negative impacts to commercial fishermen, Micciche also said that Alternative 4 would “decimate” commercial processors that remain in the area. He wrote that he has not heard from a single constituent who supports Alternative 4.

Vance’s comments were penned by the deadline of Nov. 27, her letter shows, but they were not uploaded to the NPFMC website until this week. She wrote as a representative of many commercial fishermen on the southern peninsula, and also asked the council to reject Alternative 4.

“Generations of families have lived a life of fishing these waters and need hope their livelihood is sustainable during these economically troubling times,” Vance wrote. “These fishermen of the Cook Inlet have been crying out for a fair and balanced management plan for many years. Closure of the EEZ by the Council would be a systematic rejection of the mandate to manage the fishery and would appear to be influenced by political pressure rather than people who truly care about good management.”

Homer’s resolution asserts that Alternative 4 is not a science-based alternative to fishery management, and that it wouldn’t result in “equitable or sustainable distribution” of the fishery’s salmon harvest. The resolution further notes that Alternative 4 was added as an option by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner at the NPFMC’s October meeting, after the closure of public comment, something several submitted written comments on the proposal also took issue with.

Out of 225 written comments submitted on the agenda item by Friday, not all of them were specifically against Alternative 4, but only one comment, submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, was in favor of that option.

Many of the submitted comments favor Alternative 2, which would create a combination of federal and state management of the fishery.

“I favor that option because I think that having the state and the feds work together is the going to be beneficial, rather than having them disconnected,” Haakenson said.

Management purely from the state can be unpredictable, he said, citing the many proposals that can change fisheries during the Alaska Board of Fisheries cycles. It can be political, he said.

The downside to purely federal management, Haakenson said, can be more reporting requirements, more paperwork and more requirements for things like electric monitoring equipment and onboard observers. Those could be expensive and inconvenient, but could also be helpful, he said.

Without the commercial salmon fishery as it is, Haakenson said Pacific Star Seafoods could face closure. Just in Homer, he said the company bought hundreds of thousands of pounds of other fish species over the winter.

“If we close down, all of that goes away,” he said.

The NPMFC meets starting Dec. 4, and continuing Dec. 7-11. For information on how to listen to or participate in the meeting, visit meetings.npfmc.org/Meeting/Details/1745.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

This article has been updated to include comments from Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer), which were written to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council by the deadline of Nov. 27, but were not uploaded to their website until after press time.

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