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State, feds fight lawsuit seeking federal oversight of Cook Inlet fisheries

Laurel Andrews
A lawsuit underway in Alaska U.S. District Court seeks federal oversight of Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries, but may be even wider reaching. On Monday, a public hearing was held to discuss the lawsuit, with state officials testifying against the litigation. Courtesy CR/PWSMA

The Alaska Legislature's two Finance Subcommittees on the Department of Fish and Game held a public hearing in downtown Anchorage Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit underway in which a Southcentral driftnetters association is seeking federal oversight of Cook Inlet fisheries.

The lawsuit, filed by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA) last year, challenges the validity of Amendment 12, an amendment to the federal Fishery Management Plan that allows for Alaska to regulate commercial salmon fishing in three areas of the state: The central part of Cook Inlet, the eastern part of Prince William Sound, and part of the waters off of the Alaska Peninsula and Unimak Island. Originally filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the case was later moved to Alaska.

Amendment 12 removes federal oversight for those three areas under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which outlines the federal management of fishery resources across the coastal United States. 

UCIDA wants Amendment 12 vacated, and federal oversight returned to Cook Inlet fisheries. 

“It’s an unusual case, someone complaining about federal under-reach,” Lance Nelson, Senior Assistant Attorney General said Monday. Federal overreach, on the other hand, is a common cry by Alaskans, invoked in cases like the Environmental Protection Agency's raids on Chicken gold miners last summer, and the Federal government’s stance on prohibiting a road from Cold Bay to King Cove through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula.

Amendment 12 is favored by both the federal government and the state of Alaska, officials testified on Monday. State Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, noted that the agreement between the feds and the state was an unusual position, given common tensions between the two levels of government. He joked that UCIDA was “trying to muck up that happy moment.”

Dr. Roland Maw, executive director of UCIDA, listened in on Monday’s hearing, later calling it a “huge mischaracterization” of the lawsuit.

UCIDA represents 570 salmon drift gillnet permit holders in Upper Cook Inlet, according to the organization’s Facebook page. The association declined to attend the hearing, writing that public comments would be inappropriate given ongoing litigation. The association prepared a statement that is available alongside all case filings on the subcommittee’s website. 

The statement reads in part: “UCIDA supports the conservation and management measures necessary to prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the maximum (optimum) yield from each fishery for the United States Fishing Industry … We note with concerns the current management issues regarding Chinook stocks and the associated disaster declarations.”

“We wanted some clarity about federal oversight,” Maw said. “Many people were making light of us even asking the question.”

“I believe that the people of this state want Alaska to manage salmon fisheries,” Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell said during testimony Tuesday.

She cited specifically a slower response time by the Federal government when it comes to fishery management, and allotment numbers that would need to be prepared months in advance. “It would be so ineffective that it would likely be restrictive,” Campbell said.

“If Cora is to be believed that (federal management is) so ineffective -- is she now saying that they’re so ineffective at managing the Southeast fisheries?” Maw said later on Monday.

Filed nearly a year ago, the case names the National Marine Fisheries Service, Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco and NMFS regional administrator James Balsiger, represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, as defendants. The state of Alaska later filed a motion to intervene as defendant, which was granted. 

The case will be judged by administrative record in U.S. District Court in Alaska, and will not head to jury, Nelson said. When lawsuits against a federal agency are brought to federal courts, judges must defer to the federal agency’s interpretation of a law, he said. “In this case, we have that in our favor.”

If the lawsuit is successful, it will likely affect all three areas that fall under Amendment 12, not just Cook Inlet. Amendment 12 would either be completely invalidated, or would be remanded to the courts for revision, and those revisions would likely be consistent across geographic regions.

The case may be ruled upon as early as this summer, but could draw out longer, Nelson said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews