Sitka resident and ADF&G biologist Patrick Fowler dipnetting for sockeye at Redoubt in early July, 2014. (KCAW photo/Rebecca LaGuire)
A subsistence fisherman dipnets for sockeye at Redoubt Lake Falls several years ago. The author of proposal 132, Sitkan Floyd Tomkins, argued that spearfishermen at the base of the falls dispersed schools of sockeye for up to an hour, in much the same way as a seal or other predator. (KCAW photo/Rebecca Danon)

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 Lake management area.

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

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.

“This was a funny proposal at our meeting because the folks that have been involved in 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,” Bauscher said. “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.”

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.

“The Redoubt Management Plan only lists spear and not dive gear,” said Tydingco. “So spear is a little gear type. However dive gear is not, which would basically mean that being submerged and using specifically your snorkel gear 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 (Editor’s note: Tomkins is 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.

“It’s disruptive to all the other dipnetters and snaggers in the area,” said Payton. “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.

“In this particular case, yes, (spearfishing is) disruptive, but I don’t know that we have the responsibility of making sure that the grounds are peaceful,” Wood said. “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.

“My intent with this would be, you cannot disrupt someone else who has an area where people are dip netting,” she said, “or that would be the way that I would look at it is that boats and dipnetters and snaggers 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.