City of Homer joins Upper Cook Inlet fishing closure litigation

City council voted to submit an amicus brief concerning the closure

Image via fisheries.noaa.gov
The Upper Cook Inlet Exclusive Economic Zone can be seen on this map provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Image via fisheries.noaa.gov The Upper Cook Inlet Exclusive Economic Zone can be seen on this map provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Homer City Council Monday voted unanimously to file an amicus brief in the United Cook Inlet Drift Association vs. National Marine Fisheries Services and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration litigation in support of the UCIDA’s efforts to protect commercial salmon fishing access in federally-regulated waters of Cook Inlet.

With a fishing resolution on the agenda and Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, giving a presentation, citizens also took the opportunity to speak out against Vance’s House Bill 52, which would remove acreage from Kachemak Bay State Park around the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery.

The cities of Kenai and Seward are also filing an amicus brief in the litigation. An amicus brief is a legal brief filed by a third party not involved in the case to offer information and insight to the issue at hand.

“This is a very complicated case that has gone on for a long time, and so it would be a fair amount of research, evaluation, analysis in going to file an authoritative amicus brief,” City Attorney Michael Gatti said.

In November, NOAA Fisheries issued a final rule in the Federal Register to implement Amendment 14 to the Fishery Management Plan for the salmon fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, which closes commercial salmon fishing for the 2022 season in federal waters of the Upper Cook Inlet. The area affected is more than 3 nautical miles offshore of the Alaska coast, where the Cook Inlet drift gillnet fishery operates. Federal waters extend 3 nautical miles to 200 miles, the extend of the United States economic zone.

According to NOAA Fisheries, the ruling was invoked to ensure the Salmon Fishery Management Plan is consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which was passed in 1976 to sustain fisheries.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association filed a lawsuit against the new ruling orchestrated by NOAA and NMFS.

Christy Fry, Homer News Seawatch columnist, wrote on Nov. 11, 2021, “it all stems from a 2013 court case filed by United Cook Inlet Drift Association and Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund that asked the federal government to step in and manage the fishery in federal waters to force compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. UCIDA and CIFF maintain that the state of Alaska has not followed MSA regulations and that over-escapement and state management has led to economic and biological unsustainability.”

Resolution 21-091, prepared by council member Donna Aderhold, received resounding support from community members who testified during the meeting.

“I co-sponsored Resolution 21-091 with Mayor Castner because a good percentage of the people who fish the Cook Inlet drift fishery live on the southern peninsula (including in Homer), sell their fish across Homer’s fish dock, moor their boats in the harbor, do business in Homer and rely on the marine trades to maintain their equipment,” Aderhold wrote in an email to the Homer News. “Homer City Council has a history of supporting the Cook Inlet drift fishery, and providing support to the lawsuit in the form of an amicus brief demonstrates the city’s continued interest in the livelihoods of our residents, our neighbors, and our economy.”

Aderhold also shared she believes NOAA and NMFS’s justification of closing the drift fishery was not equitable.

“Keep in mind that the fishery was not closed because of a shortage of salmon. If it was a shortage of salmon, all the fisheries— drift, setnet, personal use, sport, sport guiding — would need to adjust harvest levels and I would support that,” Aderhold wrote.

Tad Revelle Russell, a local commercial fisherman who has supported his family and the Homer economy through fishing, shared how closing the EEZ to commercial fishing would negatively impact not only his business, but all of Homer.

“The closure of the EEZ to the upper Cook Inlet drift fleet will be detrimental to the City of Homer. A large percentage of the drift fleet, which normally fishes out of Homer for the first half of the season, will relocate to the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers due to the proximity to the fishing grounds,” Russell said.

“What does this means to the City of Homer?” he asked. “In all likelihood, no processors are going to be buying fish here. That means loss of fish tax to this city. That means loss of employment to the loading crews. That means vessels will not be paying harbor fees and buying ice from the city. They will not be buying fuel here. They won’t be buying groceries. They won’t be making repairs here.”

Robert Ruffner, a representative of the Alaska Salmon Alliance, encouraged the city officials to get involved in the lawsuit to find justification for closing the EEZ.

“The only action that can be taken now is the city to enter into these legal proceedings,” Ruffner said. “The best way the city can do that right now is to be prepared to file this amicus brief. Let the attorneys look at the justifications that NMFS came up with after they decided to close the fishery and address those through the court system.”

Rep. Vance attended the city council meeting to give a legislative update and addressed her opposition of the closure as it has supplied income for local fisherman for generations.

“That as well is very important to our economy and the local fishermen,” Vance said. “I really want to see that open because it has such an impact here, and our fishermen have fished that area for generations, from the mid to late 1800s, as a source of income.”

The EEZ is set to close at the beginning of 2022.

With Vance participating in the city council meeting, Homer community members took time while sharing their support of Resolution 21-091 to discuss their distaste for HB 52, which would remove roughly 125 acres from Kachemak Bay State Park, along with the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery, and adds almost 270 acres of state land on the north shore of the bay. in the Cottonwood-Eastland area.

Roberta Highland, representing the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, spoke in support of Resolution 21-091 and against HB 52, asking that legislation separates the land removal and Kachemak Bay State Park additions.

“There are many local citizens who do not support HB 52 because of the removal of the 123 acres from the state park, setting a dangerous precedence allowing industrial or commercial operations to supersede state parks protection,” Highland said. “We citizens would like HB 52 to either be split so the land removal will stand alone and the Cottonwood-Eastland … will stand alone since they are very separate issues. Or that HB 52 is withdrawn from this session.”

Penelope Haas, a board member of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, also shared her support of Resolution 21-091 and disdain for HB 52 as it is “undermining the integrity of the statutes that protect our park,” Haas said.

“The conservation society is strongly opposed to HB 52, and we believe the city has an interest in this matter because the integrity of the statutes that protect Kachemak Bay State Park are the backbone of the culture and economy of the City of Homer,” Haas said. “What would Homer be without Kachemak Bay State Park? Sarah Vance’s HB 52, which is currently in the legislature right now moving around the committees, HB 52 put those particular statutes that protect the park into the cross hairs.”

In response, Vance justified HB 52, saying it was necessary to “cure legal land disposal issue that came up with the hatchery and the state park management plan a number of years ago.”

For more information about the bill, read the Homer News article “HB 52 ‘cures’ land disposal issue of Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery.”

HB 52 is currently moving through committee before going to house resources next. Vance said she welcomed the opportunity to give a full presentation concerning the bill to the council before the next session starts in January.

For more information about the meeting, visit https://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/citycouncil/city-council-regular-meeting-244.

The next city council meeting will be held Jan. 10 in the Cowles Council Chambers located in City Hall.

Reach Sarah Knapp at sarah.knapp@homernews.com.

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