Upper Cook Inlet management still in legal limbo

Upper Cook Inlet is expecting what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game classifies as an “average” salmon run this season. The season will be anything but average, however, with setnetters sitting out the season and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council working on a Fisheries Management Plan that adheres to court orders for the EEZ, the federal waters south of Kalgin Island.

ADF&G is predicting a return of 5.12 million sockeye and an escapement of 2 million for all systems, leaving an available harvest of around 3.12 million fish for all users. However, recent years have seen escapements well above 2 million fish, with the Kenai River alone topping 1.6 million last year, and the Kasilof River pushing 1 million sockeye on a similar forecast.

Management of UCI is still in legal limbo, according to United Cook Inlet Drift Association president David Martin, who said that none of the management plans put forth by the Council meet the legal muster of the Magnuson-Stevens Act requirements.

He said that two of the proposals have already been knocked down by the courts, which National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledges in their 532-page draft report, and the other two also won’t fly under act.

“None of the draft FMPs are compliant with Magnuson-Stevens, the court order or the rule of law,” Martin said. “The Council and NMFS are probably going to do what they did last time, they’re going to pass an illegal FMP. It’ll go through the process, go before the secretary of commerce and she’ll sign off on it and we’ll have to challenge it again.”

Gina Raimondo is the secretary of commerce, who oversees NMFS.

Martin said the court has been overseeing the process, and there will be another hearing with oral arguments on May 4, which leaves scant time to sort it all out before the season opens in June, and that no one from NMFS or the Council has contacted UCIDA or any other stakeholders.

He added that ADF&G, NMFS and the Council are supposed to have an interim plan in place for this season, but it doesn’t appear that that has been worked on yet. “We’ll see what the judge says on May 4th,” Martin said, adding that UCIDA has confidence in the judge overseeing the process, but that the court system is slow. “We’ve gone through all the avenues that the court has to follow to not overstep their bounds.”

He had less praise for the State of Alaska and the Council, which he said are one and the same.

“The Council is the State,” he said, “since they have controlling votes on it. They’ve been doing the same thing over and over again, putting forth an illegal FMP, not complying (with MSA), prolonging it and trying to run us out of time and money. They’re trying to starve us out.

“They’ve already got the beach (setnetters) closed. All we want is to have the fishery managed by what the law, the constitution says. It’s pretty simple.”

Martin added that the State doesn’t manage UCI for escapement goals, so preseason forecasts “don’t mean much if they don’t let you fish.”

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.