Feds release final rule closing part of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing

Gillnet boat in the ocean with mountains in the background
The 10-0 vote shuts down drift gillnet fishing in waters farther than three miles offshore, from the southern tip of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point. (Redoubt Reporter)

A large swath of Upper Cook Inlet will officially be closed to commercial salmon fishing next summer.

Federal regulators released a final rule last week adopting the proposed plan from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets policy in Alaska’s federal waters. Last December, that council voted to close part of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing — an area that starts three miles offshore and extends from the southern tip of Kalgin Island to Anchor Point.

Those waters have been managed by the state for a while. But the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a commercial fishing advocacy group, disputed that management in a lawsuit several years ago, asking the feds to have some oversight.

The council debated several management options last year. But when the state said it wouldn’t manage the fishery jointly with the feds, it opted to close the federal waters fishery entirely. The state waters portion will remain open.

“The closure is consistent with the Council’s longstanding salmon management policy to facilitate salmon management by the State of Alaska,” NOAA Fisheries said, “and avoids the introduction of an additional management jurisdiction and the associated uncertainty into the complex and interdependent network of Cook Inlet salmon fishery sectors.”

Fishermen have said it’s the last nail in the coffin for a fishery that’s already on the decline. The drift fishery is the only fishery that operates in Cook Inlet’s federal waters.

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel, who’s also a commercial fisherman, says he worries about the impact locally. He’s one of several Kenai Peninsula leaders that sent letters to the feds earlier this year, asking them to reconsider the council’s decision.

“We’re concerned about the long-term effect that this can have on the drift fleet,” he said. “And then, consequently, the trickle effect to our processors here in Cook Inlet. Which are really hanging on right now by a thread.”

But now that a final decision has been made, he said the only way he sees the area reopening is if there are changes made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act. That act sets the rules for fishery management in federal waters. A last resort for fishermen could also be to appeal the decision in court.

The decision is effective Dec. 3.

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