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Alaska Fisheries Report March 31, 2022

On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines: The Board of Fish bans sockeye spearfishing in Sitka. Homer fisherman Michael Heimbuch is the Governor’s new nominee to the Board of Fish. And a fisherman competition caps Comfish.

NO SPEAR            3-29-22                     ROBERT WOOLSEY



A subsistence fishing method that has become more popular with sockeye harvesters in Sitka in recent years is now banned.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries last week (3-22-22) prohibited the use of spear guns in the Redoubt (REE-dowt) Lake management area.

Proponents of the ban argued that spearfishing was inefficient, dangerous, and disruptive to schooling sockeye – and likely illegal in any case.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports.

The Redoubt Lake Falls are about a 15-mile skiff ride from Sitka. The Forest Service fertilizes the lake every year, and the sockeye run there typically produces large numbers of fish that are a bit bigger than their cousins at Necker Bay and Klag Bay – both of which are farther away and more challenging to reach.
Dipnetting in the falls, and snagging in the bay, are the most common techniques for subsistence harvesters, but over the past few years more people have been putting on wetsuits and snorkels, and fishing at the base of the falls with spear guns.

Sitka’s Fish & Game Advisory Committee voted on dozens of management proposals last fall, in preparation for the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting this March in Anchorage. But it didn’t vote on the proposed spearfishing ban.

Committee chair Heather Bauscher explained the situation to the Board.

3:27 – Heather – this was a funny proposal at our meeting because the folks that have been involved in this, this emerging spear fishery for the sockeye kind of showed up in force, because there’s been people doing this for years, and it’s been growing. And so all these folks came up and gave a whole bunch of testimony about it. And we had this long conversation trying to figure out how to draw lines to allow them some sort of space until we realized that actually, it wasn’t legal. And part of what was not legal about it is you could do the spear from the shore, but you couldn’t be submerged in the water with the spear is I guess the problem.

Bauscher is correct: A spear is legal gear for subsistence, provided you use it from shore. Proposal 132 presumably would ban the use of a spear by an individual who is immersed. Being immersed – anywhere in the frigid waters of Alaska – means using dive gear. Troy Tydingco, acting regional sportfish manager for ADF&G, suggested that connecting these dots meant that spearfishing – the underwater activity – was already prohibited.

:16 – Troy – So although spear is listed as a legal gear type and presumably dive gear is listed as legal gear type and subsistence regulations, this the readout management plan only lists spear and not dive gear. So, spear is a little gear type. However type yours not, which would make basically just mean that being submerged. And using specifically your snorkel gear, like mask snorkel would not be legal in the subsistence fishery.

The Board of Fish struggled a bit to clarify what it was being asked to regulate. Board member Israel Payton sympathized with the proposer, Sitkan Floyd Tomkins (WEB: father of Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kriess-Tomkins), who wrote that divers disrupted schools of sockeye as they prepared to head into the falls, and were essentially entering and exiting the water with a loaded weapon in close proximity to fishermen on shore.

Payton recounted his own experience dip-netting for salmon near Homer, with a spear fisherman in the water.

13:51 Israel Payton – It’s disruptive to all the other depth netters and snags in the area. And it’s not an efficient means to harvest these fish. So I’ll I don’t know how it’s going to shake out but I would like to not see this happen at all. I’m for banning people swimming underwater, by any means harvesting a fish and kind of disrupting traditional means of harvesting fish.

Member John Wood was less sympathetic. He believed that sorting out user conflict wasn’t in the board’s purview.

15:28 – John Wood – But in this particular case, yes, disruptive, but I don’t know that we have the responsibility of making sure that the grounds are peaceful. So I’m having trouble supporting it. I understand the sentiment.

But board member McKenzie Mitchell did see the proposal as a way of managing user conflict, and preserving traditional access to the fish. While she wasn’t anti-spearfishing, she did want divers out of the way of other harvesters.

22:58 – Mitchell – And so I guess, my intent with this would be, you cannot disrupt someone else who has, you know, an area where people are dip netting or that would be the way that I would look at it is that boats and debtors and snackers have the right of way to that access, and someone diving with a spear gun would have to find an area where they are not in conflict with other users.

Proposal 132 banning spear fishing for sockeye at Redoubt Falls while immersed in the water passed 4-2 with board members Jensen and Wood opposed.

Heimbuch Nominated to BoF                             Sabine Poux/KDLL      

A second-generation commercial fisherman from Homer is Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s latest pick for the state’s Board of Fisheries.

The governor appointed Michael Heimbuch [HIGHm-buck] to fill the vacancy left earlier this year by Soldotna’s Indy Walton, who resigned from the board after four months, citing health issues.

KDLL’s Sabine Poux has more.

Heimbuch, who has set- and drift-netted across the state, will finish out the remainder of Walton’s term — just over one year. He says he applied at the suggestion of his predecessor, who’s a friend from their Bristol Bay days.

“So on a lark I just did it. And then it had a life of its own after that, and that was about a month ago.”

The seven-member Board of Fisheries makes decisions about fish allocation and management in Alaska’s waters. Board nominees are appointed by the governor and approved by the Alaska Legislature.

Heimbuch has thrown his hat in the fisheries policy ring before.

He’s been nominated twice for the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council as an alternate and has a long history of commercial fishing around Alaska, first with his parents on the west side of Cook Inlet in 1963, followed by stints set- and drift-netting in False Pass, Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay. He’s also fished in Adak and by Kodiak.

“And so I’ve just been making the circuit as kind of a short timer in all of those places. I was always far more interested in doing new and different things than I was in staying in one place for a long time.”

Heimbuch moved to Homer in 1975. There aren’t currently any permits registered in his name. He had a Cook Inlet drift net permit as recently as 2021, although he says he hasn’t fished the inlet since 2018. The latest boat registered in his name is a 38-foot gillnetter called Last Lite.

“Whether or not I ever go back and fish again, I’m not sure. But I am scheduled to go to help my daughter fish this summer in Kodiak.”

Hannah, his daughter, lives in Kodiak and has two permits in her name — one Cook Inlet drift net permit and another Kodiak set net permit. She’s also been an active voice in fisheries policy, [WEB including in the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network and with Ocean Strategy.]

Heimbuch’s son, Ivan, has a Cook Inlet drift net permit registered in his name and is a leatherworker based in Homer.

Heimbuch says because both kids fish the inlet, he won’t discuss or vote on anything related to Cook Inlet salmon fishing altogether — known as “conflicting out.”

Heimbuch says he’s acutely aware from his experience how rural communities rely on the commercial fishing industry. And he’s concerned that a large portion of Alaska seafood is harvested by nonresidents. He says he’s interested in making sure residents of coastal communities have the resources to participate in local commercial fishing.

Participation of the next generation in the fishery is another matter that hits close to home. Heimbuch says he wants to make sure young people have reason and rationale to get involved in the business.

“For coastal Alaska, until we get better at making people understand that industry is at least as important as leisure, we’re always going to be behind the eight ball. And I can only hope that the representatives on the Board of Fish are successful in telling urban Alaska why rural Alaska has such a high dependence on the stability of commercial fishing.”

Heimbuch was previously a member of the Homer City Council and has held a plethora of roles on local boards. He’s also worked with the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, which works on hatchery issues.

Court records show three fishing regulation violations in his name from the 1980s and 1990s. Heimbuch says two were related to fishing just over the line in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, while another was because he was late to drop off a registration card in Naknek.

Outside of fishing, Heimbuch is a longtime columnist for the Homer News and is a jazz pianist. He studied music as an undergrad at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Heimbuch begins his time on the board April 15. Board terms are usually three years. But since Heimbuch is filling out Walton’s term, his will end June 2023.

Glenn Haight [HATE], executive director for the board, says it’s unclear whether the Legislature will have time to fit in a hearing this session or if it will have to wait until next year. The governor appointed Heimbuch to the seat nearly two months later than the legal 30-day deadline for filling the seat.

His announcement Monday came with two other Board of Fish appointments.

Dunleavy appointed Three Bears Alaska CEO David Weitz, of Tok, and Thomas Carpenter, a commercial fisherman in Cordova, to the seats that will come open this summer when two current members [WEB — Gerard Godfrey and Israel Payton —] term out.

The Board of Fish — with its vacant seat — is meeting in Anchorage this week. [It’s scheduled to consider a proposal to loosen paired restrictions on Cook Inlet set-netters for the 2022 fishing season.]

Fisherman Showcase   Kirsten Dobroth, KMXT

ComFish is arguably Kodiak’s biggest event of the year. It went virtual in 2020, and was rebooted in-person this year. And as afternoon clouds blew in on Saturday, a small crowd gathered in the Harbor Convention Center’s parking lot to watch the Fishermen’s Showcase.

The four fishermen competing in this year’s challenge battled against the clock – and each other – completing essential skills of the trade at five different stations. First was rope coiling, then knot tying and a separate rail tie, where a line is fixed to a metal pole.

The final two stations were more challenging. Each contestant had to knock down a target with a hook toss. Only then could they pop their neoprene survival suits out of their dry bags and awkwardly wiggle into them.

Parry Nelson won the event in just under 2 minutes. The 35-year-old from Kodiak says he’s a lifelong fisherman – and it’s not his first Fishermen’s Showcase victory. He took home a knife and belt for this year’s win. He didn’t say if he’d return to defend his title in the future. Although, according to some in the crowd, they’d be back next year.

Nearly 40 exhibitors made the trip to Kodiak for this year’s tradeshow, and over a dozen panelists presented in-person and virtually the fishery forums. Attendance was down compared to pre-pandemic years, according to the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, but they’re hopeful that this year’s return to normal is a good sign for years to come.

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