Court ruling reopens part of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association called the court’s ruling a “victory”

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)

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)

A key fishing ground for Cook Inlet’s drift fishers will be open for commercial salmon fishing this summer.

A district court this week vacated a ruling that closed Cook Inlet’s federal waters to commercial salmon fishing. The waters in question, called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), run from south of Kalgin Island to about Anchor Point, and are a key fishing ground for many of Cook Inlet’s drift net fleet.

”(National Marine Fisheries Service) failed to include a reasoned explanation for its decision to exclude the recreational sector from the (Federal Management Plan) for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery,” the summary judgement says. “This by itself renders the Final Rule arbitrary and capricious under the (Administrative Procedure Act).”

This week’s decision comes after more than a year of pushback from commercial fishermen and peninsula municipalities in response to the closure.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) voted in 2020 to recommend the closure as a “management” plan — a move that drew swift criticism from multiple peninsula stakeholders, many of whom cited the potential economic harm and the alternative’s late addition to the council consideration process.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association filed suit in response to the closure last year with the goal of reopening the waters before the 2022 summer fishing season. The group on Wednesday called the court’s ruling a “victory.”

“This is a substantial victory,” UCIDA said in an announcement shared to social media Wednesday. “The court has ruled, once again, that UCIDA’s position on salmon management is legitimate.”

Among other things, the UCIDA case called the decision to close EEZ waters “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary” to multiple laws, including the Magnuson-Stevens Act. UCIDA said the closure would also have “immediate and disastrous consequences” on commercial fish processors, their families and the local economy.

Multiple municipalities across the Kenai Peninsula have taken formal action to voice their opposition to the closure of EEZ to commercial salmon fishing, including the cities of Homer and Kenai as well as the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Homer and Kenai passed legislation last year asking U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to veto the management council’s decision.

The cities of Kenai and Homer also filed amicus curiae briefs — which are frequently submitted by a person or group that is not party to a legal action but has a strong interest in the issue — in the UCIDA suit.

UCIDA’s case was consolidated with a separate suit that was also filed in anticipation of the closure.

Three local commercial fishermen represented pro bono by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization, also filed suit last year. PFL, which focuses on cases that deal with what they call government overreach, focused on what the firm said was the unconstitutionality of how members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council were appointed.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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