• Moving the drift fleet north threatens Homer economy
By Hannah Heimbuch
I don’t envy the decision makers deliberating at the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish Board of Fisheries meeting this month. They’re tasked with choices that do and will affect the economy and sustainability of our natural resources for years to come, and everyone is watching.
While much public discussion has focused on the decisions surrounding dwindling King salmon in the Kenai River, there is another issue that Homer fishermen are and should be watching closely. Those are the proposals that would close or restrict Cook Inlet’s commercial drift fishery, limiting boats to comparatively narrow corridors outside the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for much of the season.
The proposals were put forth by fishing groups in the Mat-Su Borough that are concerned about suffering stocks in northern Cook Inlet habitats, particularly coho salmon that feed that area’s sport and personal use fisheries. They aim to reduce interception of northern fish by central district drifters.
While the season typically sees some days where the fleet is put in the eastern corridor, to serve various management needs of a complex system, the proposals point to a major restriction of Cook Inlet’s historical inlet-wide fishing. This would inhibit harvest efficiency of the major sockeye resource, seriously change the fishery dynamic in Cook Inlet, and adds the potential for over escapement in rivers and streams that are not currently suffering.
But beyond those concerns, what Homer really stands to lose is the economic benefit associated with having a large commercial fleet based out of the Homer harbor.
Not that restricting any group’s income should ever be taken lightly, but this is not a fishery heavily populated by out of state permit holders. Around 300 of Cook Inlet’s 500 drift permits are held by Homer and Kachemak Bay area residents. An average of two deckhands adds another several hundred fishermen to those boats. The income they generate supports hundreds of local families, many of which have fished Alaska for two or three generations, and their income is an important working piece of the Homer economy.
About 100 drift boats are ported in Homer, and twice that number use the port during some portion of the season. Currently, the south line of the fishing grounds starts at Anchor Point. This proximity supports a wide variety of services utilized by the fleet, allowing the port to generate funds in many ways beyond fisherman income. This includes seafood processors stationed here to buy fish, docking fees, ice and fuel purchases, and the wide spectrum of marine trades services available in Homer to build, repair and supply boats. This is thousands of dollars into the Homer economy each year — thousands of dollars per boat that is. If the fishing grounds are shifted to a more permanent northern location, travel costs from homeport will force most Homer fishermen to base their operations out of Kasilof or Kenai. This loss would be felt in marine businesses throughout the community, and in fees paid directly to Homer Port and Harbor.
The City, Port and Harbor and the Chamber of Commerce have all been proactive and outspoken in their opposition to these proposals, recognizing the threat this move poses to our community. As a Cook Inlet drift permit holder and third-generation Alaska fisherman, I’m grateful for their support. As a Homer resident, I am happy to see our city leaders protecting a major part of our local economy.
That’s not to say I don’t also support efforts to protect fisheries that are suffering. But as local fisherman Frank Mullen noted at a January city council meeting in Homer, Susitna salmon do not only travel up the central district, they are spread throughout the inlet, including the corridor. And like all of Alaska’s fluctuating and struggling fisheries, there are other factors — from in-river habitat to changes and threats within the high seas environment — that cannot be mitigated by cutting the commercial users short of the time and space they rely on to make their living.
Hamstringing the drift harvest hardly makes Mat-Su escapement or revitalized sport opportunity a sure thing. Much like decimating the family-operated set net operations on Cook Inlet’s east shores will not guarantee a reversal of the Kenai’s struggling King salmon, despite what heavily invested sport interests might say.
In the end, sustainability of all of Alaska’s fish resources is and should always be the priority over financial advantage. Any fisherman worth his salt will say the same. But these drastic changes to a resident-owned fishery — changes that pose serious economic consequences for not only the fishermen but the communities they live in — do not guarantee a solution to the North Cook Inlet stock concerns, but do guarantee a hardship in Kachemak Bay.
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