Subsistence halibut fishing is a serious chore

Posted: Sunday, November 27, 2005

Juneau resident Harold Martin was the first in Alaska to obtain a federal certificate for subsistence halibut fishing.

But like many Natives in Juneau who got subsistence halibut certificates in 2003 or 2004, Martin doesn't use this new privilege very often.

"A lot of people have applied for it ... but the distance you have to go (to fish) is kind of prohibitive," Martin said.

Waters near Juneau are off-limits to subsistence halibut fishing, which allows a daily bag limit of 20 fish and use of 30 hooks per day. The program is available only to eligible Native tribes and rural residents in Alaska.

Juneau Natives who qualify for the program steer their boats out as far as the far side of Admiralty Island or Point Couverden to catch their subsistence halibut.

"The hard-core people run over to Point Couverden," said Brad Fluetsch, a Juneau resident who has taken advantage of his tribal subsistence certificate only once.

That's in part because Fluetsch blew up the motor on his large boat and had to sell it. Now limited to his small skiff, he can't travel the long distances to subsistence halibut fishing grounds.

The one time Fluetsch did go out fishing for subsistence halibut, he realized that it is a practice best left to the truly dedicated.

Fluetsch and a friend traveled to the other side of Admiralty Island and set out a sturdy, 100-foot fishing line with 30 hooks.

When they returned to their line later, "on every hook, there was not a halibut. There was a skate ... . It was really a lot of work," Fluetsch said.

About 13,000 certificates have been obtained by Alaska tribal members or rural residents since the subsistence halibut fishery was created in 2003 but not all of them are being used, according to a new draft report on the subsistence program produced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The report is based on surveys of participants in the program and it shows that the highest participation is occurring in Southeast Alaska rural communities.

The federal program "didn't create a new fishery ... it just legalized traditional practices," said Michael Turek, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Subsistence Division.

The heaviest subsistence halibut fishing on the community level is occurring in Sitka and Kodiak, which qualify as rural communities (unlike Juneau) and retain a strong local tradition of fishing halibut with multiple hooks.

Alaska Natives have used the multiple-hook method for thousands of years, and rural residents also have become familiar with the method, Turek said.

"Setting this kind of gear is a chore," he added. Still, it is a highly efficient method for subsistence food gathering if one knows how to do it and where to set the line.

"You can leave it out instead of sitting out there with a hand line," Turek said.

The new report by the Department of Fish and Game is out for public comment until Dec. 7 and has a final publication date of Dec. 20.

The report includes harvest rate comparisons for communities and regions involved in the subsistence program. It can be viewed at

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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