Feds working on new plan for contentious Cook Inlet fishery

fishing boats
A federal council voted to close a large swath of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing in 2020. That decision was overturned earlier this year. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Federal fisheries managers say they’ve started working on a new management plan for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery, months after a court said their plan to completely close the fishery was unjust.

At a meeting in Anchorage Thursday, Jon Furland with NOAA Fisheries told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that time is of the essence to create a new plan and comply with the court.

“We can’t wait, is the short answer,” he said.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council manages fishing in Alaska’s federal waters.

In 2020, following a lawsuit from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association over management of the drift fishery, the council voted to close a large swath of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. The closure applied to Cook Inlet’s federal waters — which start three miles offshore, south of Kalgin Island. That area is where drift fishermen say they catch a majority of their fish.

The closure was controversial and UCIDA sued, once again, to overturn the decision. The court sided with the group in June and told the state to reopen the fishery for the 2022 season.

But that was just a temporary fix. Once again, UCIDA and the feds are at odds over what comes next.

In a Sept.6 legal brief, UCIDA said the group would like to see the feds approve a new management plan — which would comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Act and govern the whole of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery — before the next fishing season starts. It said the feds should tap UCIDA to collaborate on that plan and if a new plan isn’t possible by June, it would like to see an order that imposes temporary relief for the 2023 season.

But in a response brief filed Sept. 29, the feds say that deadline is unworkable. Kurland told the council he’ll ask for the green light to get started on analysis for the new plan, which he said could be in place in two years.

“And as we’ve told the court in our filing, we think that can happen by the 2024 season,” Kurland said. “It won’t be easy to do it in that time frame but that’s what we told the court and we think we can make that work.”

In the meantime, NOAA said the fishery should continue under the management of the state of Alaska, as it has been for years. Dissatisfaction with that management was what prompted UCIDA to sue in the first place.

UCIDA will have another chance to reply with another remedy brief, later this month, before the court rules on a timeline.

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