Dunleavy Chooses Oil Over Salmon in Cook Inlet


This past week, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council sent shockwaves across Alaska when it abruptly closed commercial salmon fishing in the federal waters of Lower Cook Inlet.

The closure resulted from the State of Alaska’s blanket refusal to work with the federal government to co-manage the salmon fishery in Lower Cook Inlet.

The irony here is of course thick, because the State of Alaska strongly supports oil and gas leasing in the federal waters of Lower Cook Inlet, despite the fact many of the same cost and management concerns it cites to close salmon fishing in federal waters also apply to oil and gas oversight.

Federal waters to be closed in Lower Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing.

Since the late 1880’s, commercial salmon fishing has played a critical role in Cook Inlet’s economy and culture. Now, instead of fishermen plying the waters of Lower Cook Inlet – and supporting our local families, our local businesses and our Alaskan way of life – we’re looking at expanded oil and gas leasing, exploration and development in the very same waters.

As climate change rolls-on as the greatest single threat to the people and places of Alaska, it’s mind-boggling the State of Alaska would support oil and gas development over commercial salmon fishing in Lower Cook Inlet.

But that’s what’s happening. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is now moving ahead with plans to lease over a million acres of Lower Cook Inlet for more oil and gas development in 2021 (Lease Sale 258). Hilcorp already owns leases in the area, and if it proves-up its holdings, the frontier waters of Lower Cook Inlet will become an industrialized morass of pipelines, offshore platforms and onshore facilities.

Proposed oil and gas leasing in Lower Cook Inlet.

In the 1970’s, local Alaskans confronted a similar prospect, when the State of Alaska leased acreage in Kachemak Bay for oil and gas development. But fishermen, Native Alaskans and everyday Alaskans fought back, forcing the state to buy-back the leases and create the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area.

Can anyone today imagine the incredible views across Kachemak Bay pocked with belching, spewing oil and gas platforms? Now, think about what Lower Cook Inlet will look like in 10 or 20 or 50 years if our state and federal governments get their way.

In justifying its stance to close commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, the State of Alaska fell back on a stale and tired rationale: states’ rights. It argued that only the state – asserting the unique powers only a state can possess – can and should manage the salmon resources that run through both state and federal waters.

But this is where the hypocrisy really gets deep.  When the oil, gas and mining industries decided they didn’t like Alaska’s Coastal Management Program (ACMP), Governors Frank Murkowski and Sean Parnell dutifully tossed the program under the bus.  Yet the ACMP was the only law – the only one – that gave the State of Alaska the legal right to challenge projects in federal waters that harmed state resources.

The ACMP epitomized the notion of “states’ rights.” But when their corporate overseers balked at protecting Alaska’s magnificent fishery resources, Frank Murkowski and Sean Parnell pushed ideological purity aside and sided with the monied interests. As a result, Alaska – which possesses more coastline than all the Lower 48 states combined – is the only state in the nation without a coastal management program.

So much for states’ rights.

Now the State of Alaska is once again picking favorites. And the Dunleavy Administration’s decision to put oil and gas development over commercial fishing in Lower Cook Inlet should command the attention – and muster the outrage – of every true Alaskan.