Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront

Living and learning and surviving on the water | Hannah Heimbuch

May 05, 2022 Ocean Conservancy Season 1 Episode 4
Living and learning and surviving on the water | Hannah Heimbuch
Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
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Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
Living and learning and surviving on the water | Hannah Heimbuch
May 05, 2022 Season 1 Episode 4
Ocean Conservancy

In this season’s final episode, we hear from Hannah Heimbuch, a commercial fisherman and policy and communications consultant with Ocean Strategies, who lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Hannah shares her experience growing up in a fishing family and fishing town and how profoundly climate change is affecting salmon and other fish central to the way of life in the North Pacific. We also eagerly connect about storytelling and Filipino food–yum!

Show Notes Transcript

In this season’s final episode, we hear from Hannah Heimbuch, a commercial fisherman and policy and communications consultant with Ocean Strategies, who lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Hannah shares her experience growing up in a fishing family and fishing town and how profoundly climate change is affecting salmon and other fish central to the way of life in the North Pacific. We also eagerly connect about storytelling and Filipino food–yum!

Alliyah Lusuegro

Welcome to Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront. This is a podcast series of recorded interviews and stories about the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries, as told by the people who spend their days catching, managing and researching fish from the ocean. In today's episode, we talk to Hannah Heimbuch from Kodiak Island, Alaska, a salmon fisherman and policy and communications consultant focused on fisheries, seafood and marine conservation. I'm Alliyah Lusuegro and this is a production of Ocean Conservancy.

Hello. What's up? Welcome to the final episode of the first installment of Fish & Us. Can you believe it? Today we're taking it to the North Pacific with Hannah who you'll hear more from soon. 

Now, if you're a lover of seafood, you'll definitely want to tune in. I know that I regularly have it. I love seafood. Sushi, oysters, you name it. Shout out to my parents for introducing it to me at a young age. In fact, I remember I won this really random competition in preschool for eating this healthy, yummy meal of tilapia, which is this type of fish, with vegetables. And again, that's so random, I know, but I think it just goes to show how fish has been a part of my life for a while now.

In my conversation with Hannah, I learned about her experience as a commercial fisherman which is a really cool shift for me, and I think for this podcast, since we had the chance to learn from the recreational side earlier. And our seafood culture in the United States is huge. It supports tons of livelihoods and puts food on millions of tables.

I learned from Hannah how diverse commercial fishing is, in fleets and in the fisheries themselves. Hannah also contextualizes who she is as a fisherman in the place and the people that she's with, including the marine ecosystem, the Alutiiq people of the North Pacific and her very own family. It was a joy to speak with her. So let's roll the tape.

Hannah Heimbuch

Hi, my name is Hannah Heimbuch. I am 36 years old. I was born and raised in Alaska. I live now in Kodiak, Alaska. It's an island in the Gulf. I'm from Homer, which is in South Central, also a fishing town, and I've been a commercial fisherman, or part of a commercial fishing family all of my life. Now, these days, I fish for salmon.

I own and operate a setnet operation. Which means I fish for salmon out of skiffs and live on the beach in a very remote part of the island in the summertime. And to the rest of my time, I work as a fisheries advocate, communicator, marine conservationist. Anything under the sun. I do lots of writing and talking about fish.


Sweet. So how and when did you get started with fishing?


I mean, that's kind of hard to explain. Like how far? How far back do you go? My very first sentence as a human on this planet was “daddy gone -ishing?” One of the most definitive things of my childhood was that my dad would leave the house and leave shore and be gone for long periods of time out catching fish. And that's how he supported our family. 

And so I grew up with that livelihood and lifestyle just being an integral part of my identity. That was what we ate, it’s what we did. It's who we were. We were fishermen. My parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents were all fishermen. And we're really blessed to live and work and fish in Alaska and the North Pacific waters, which have been fishing grounds for our Indigenous neighbors for thousands and thousands of years, and really grateful to be a part of that.

I had gone to school for journalism and other kinds of creative writing and literature and had really thought I would go more into that sort of work. But as I stopped work every summer to go and go out fishing with my dad and my brother, I realized kind of in my twenties that my core self was built around this marine ecosystem.

And it's where I really learned how to be whole and healthy and where I grounded myself and who I was and my relationship to the planet, to my neighbors. And over time, it just became my whole world. And I eventually stopped fishing with my dad and my brother and became a captain in my own right.


I love that your first words were “daddy gone -ishing”. Was it your dad that taught you?


Yeah. So my brother and I started fishing with our dad when we were young adults. So we were salmon fishermen. And that meant going out on thirty-, thirty-five-foot boats that have a small cabin on them where you're living on board. And so you're living in very close quarters with your family. And that's where I learned how to be a safe mariner, how to work hard, how to ask a lot of my body. I learned how to power through seasickness and fear and exhaustion.

I also learned a lot about the ocean, how to read water or how to look for fish when you can't actually see them. All those sort of mystical things about being a fisherman, right. And then also, how do you read weather, how do you read the tide? How do you read what the other boats and other animals around you are doing so that you can be a successful fisherman?

And that has been a really critical part of my family's relationships with each other is that practice of living and learning and surviving on the water.


So you're on Kodiak Island. To ask about those Indigenous neighbors, Kodiak is the ancestral and traditional homelands of the Alutiiq people. Can you describe maybe what you know of this, the history or the relationship there with the Alutiiq people and fishing?


You know, I'm just now starting to learn about some of the history and practices of the Alutiiq people who have been living and thriving on Kodiak Island for many thousands of years and have really been the steady witnesses to this land and water and the living things within them. 

In the last year, my partner and I have bought a setnet site, which is a salmon fishing operation based on land. It's down in a really remote part of the island, an hour's flight away from even the town of Kodiak, which is in itself already quite remote. And it's in a really special, special place. It neighbors the traditional village of Akhiok, which is an Alutiiq community that has been fished from and lived in by the Alutiiq people for seven, eight thousand years.

And I'm really moved by the incredible hieroglyphics and artifacts that can be seen around the island that show a depth of connection to marine mammals, to the salmon that return every summer and then to one another. And I definitely am not an expert on that history by any means, but I have found my wonder and fascination with the culture and my neighbors that still thrive in these wild places using traditional practices and ways of life to be super inspiring.


You said earlier that Kodiak, Alaska is a fishing town. Can you speak more to what makes Kodiak a fishing town? 


Mhm. Well, one of the reasons I moved from Homer over to Kodiak, which actually aren't very far apart, just a 12 hour ferry ride, that's all. I moved here because it's actually very much a fishing town, one of the most thriving fishing communities in the state of Alaska, if not the nation. And it's just absolutely central to the life and families here. And I really appreciate just being part of that.

It has a thriving, working waterfront. You know, we have quite a few processors here and people that buy and process fish all year round. We have a huge variety of fishermen here in Kodiak. We have everything from the small boats, skiff-based fishermen like myself and my partner. And then you have the larger boats that longline for halibut or black cod or pot fish, for Pacific cod or same for salmon. These are the kind of medium size boats. And then you also have large, more industrial type fleet, trawlers and big boat longliners, things like that.  So it's very, very diverse in its fishermen, in its processing workforce. 

The largest Coast Guard base in the country is on Kodiak, which also adds an interesting dynamic to the community. 

There is a large population of Filipino Americans that live here that have come to be part of the fishing and seafood industry here, very family oriented communities. And so it's quite a fascinating place. And then it also has a number of Alutiiq villages that are, you know, the traditional communities of Kodiak. So I moved here because it's rich in history and in fishing opportunity and in its diversity of activity and the people that are driven here because of fish.


I am Filipino American, and I didn't know that there's a presence of my community at Kodiak. So I really want to look into that now and maybe hit up people I know in the North Pacific and see if they have anything to do with that.


Oh, you should. And just an aside, I think that is the largest ethnic group of people here in Kodiak. I live in a neighborhood that is almost entirely Filipino. And so, like, to me, having grown up in kind of a not diverse part of the state and now moving to and still being in Alaska, but having cultural diversity around me, it feels like such a gift. It's really neat and it just makes Kodiak super unique.


This makes me think about how seafood is a huge part of my culture and the way that there are so many ways to cook fish and seafood for us. So yeah, I wonder if there is any influence of that at Kodiak.


I'm so glad you asked that because Kodiak actually super struggles with restaurants, but I so wish that some of the Filipino families would open some traditional food restaurants and use the seafood here. Like there's a handful of ways that Americans, on a very stereotypical level, like to eat seafood. And I would love to see more influence of other cultural approaches to seafood, people that eat a way bigger variety of seafood items than others tend to.

And maybe we can get into this later, but I think that's a big piece of adapting with climate change too, is like, eat with your ecosystem as so many coastal cultures around the world learn to do for centuries, thousands of years. I think we need to be doing more of that.


Awesome. And then going back to you, what do you fish currently? And you also said that you've established a setnet site. Can you tell me more about that and how that works? 


Yeah. So most of my life, I have been a salmon fisherman. What I grew up doing and what I mostly fish for the last ten years or so as I was running my own boats, I drifted for salmon, where I was on a boat going off shore, putting a net out and drifting with the tide.

What I do now is another type of salmon gillnetting. But it's called setnetting. And what that means is instead of putting a net off of a boat and drifting with the tide to intercept salmon, I have a stationary net that's anchored on the shore and then stretches out into the water and catches salmon as they as they swim by, going towards home streams and things to spawn.

It's just a very different lifestyle. Instead of living on a boat, you live in a cabin on shore and then you leave everyday out in skiffs to go check your nets. I love both ways of fishing. They're both effective, thrilling and exciting. 

I am excited to be a setnet fisherman because I want to have a family. And so my partner and I are looking for a place where we can have little kids and be fishing at the same time. That's definitely one of the motivating factors. 

And also I've been seasick for like a decade and I thought, you know, maybe I'll fish from shore for a while and have some babies. So that's the plan for now.


I love that. That's a good factor in your decision.


Yeah. My whole family actually gets seasick, which is not that uncommon among fishermen. We just learn to tough through it. Or have all different kinds of essential oils or medicines or patches or whatever magic. And my dad has said that if he ever writes a book, it'll be called “Seasick for Fifty Years.”


So next to being a fisherman, you are also a fisheries policy and communications consultant at Ocean Strategies. What is Ocean Strategies and what do you work on?


My work in the non-fishing part of fishing, the fish policy and communications realm, started probably eight years ago now when I got a job as a community organizer for a marine conservation organization called the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. And in that job, I helped connect fishermen to the policy processes that impact their livelihoods. 

So four or five years ago, I moved from the nonprofit world to working at a firm called Ocean Strategies. Brett Veerheusen is the owner of the firm. And really where it started, it was just the two of us. We're both Homer, Alaska born fish kids that grew up fishing with our dads. So we thought, like, wouldn't it be cool to have a consultancy that was staffed by commercial fishermen, for commercial fishermen. We intentionally work for people and for ideas that really inspire us, that align with our shared values around marine conservation, around small businesses, around independent harvesters, things like that.

We really try to make these connections between seafood dependent businesses and consumers and understand what is America's future sustainable seafood story and America's food security story. And so, as a person in the 21st century looking at the different social justice, food justice, environmental movements that I am witnessing and part of, I'm really interested in how we create local food security and sustainability and that global sustainability and security without scrutiny and really strong participation from local stakeholders and national experts.

We need that diversity of opinion. Without that, we aren't able to maintain both that local and that global vision. And so that's a space I'm really interested in working and effecting. It's really wanting to create a sustainable system where independent local communities are able to be self-sufficient and sustained by the ecosystem that they live within. But then we also have a strong supply chain that is feeding the world.


That's really cool. I want to zoom out of your response and also direct to something that just struck me. You're asking the question of, what is the seafood story of the U.S.? Can you tell us more about that? You kind of explain what the vision is for what that story would look like in the future. But what is it like right now?


The U.S. has a really huge diversity of fishing communities around the country. I think we've had some hard lessons learned in the history of our country as far as overfishing and what that looks like. How do we respond to it? How do we rebuild stocks that have been overfished? As modern science has evolved and fisheries science has evolved, we've learned how to conserve our resources, how to only take what is possible to take from the ocean while keeping it renewable and strong.

And I think that as we've adapted those management regimes that are focused on conserving the resource, but also creating economic efficiency, we've lost some of the focus on or some of the support for smaller scale fishermen. And that's where the difficult part about U.S. fisheries management is for me right now. In so many ways, we've made incredible strides on safety at sea, on conservation and rebuilding of overfished stocks.

We've seen some just incredible success in our ability to be marine stewards and leaders in the world in that arena. But there have been consequences to that. And it's often the access and rights and independence of small communities, particularly Indigenous communities and small scale harvesters, that are sort of left out of that story when you're seeking those economic efficiencies.


Wow. That was very illuminating for me. And I like how, yeah, you just brought it back to the support for small scale fishermen. 

So I am going to shift gears. You're a writer and you said that you went to school for journalism and creative writing, and I am also a fellow writer. I think it's really interesting to see how we communicate the issues that we work on, the issues that you just illustrated, and issues like climate change. And I'm curious, as a communications expert, Hannah, how are you generally finding these conversations around climate right now, especially in the realm of fisheries?


It's interesting. I've seen climate gain so much attention in even the short amount of time that I have been working professionally as a fisheries advocate. And so I most often see it in terms of policy discussions, right. So I see the stories about it, which are often kind of scary and a little sad. People that are seeing ecosystems change drastically and have a lot of fear and loss around them.

We are experiencing just some incredibly devastating impacts from the loss of salmon returns on the Yukon River here in Alaska. There are communities along two thousand miles of river, most of them incredibly remote communities that have been there for millennia. For the first time in their history as a people, salmon are not coming back. And there's all of these different theories about why.

And it's probably a mixture of all of them as far as, you know, intercept in the ocean, other fisheries, habitat impacts, and then climate being a huge factor in that. And so we have these heartbreaking stories coming out of the Yukon and other rivers like it of people that, the river is so closed out, they're unable to catch even a fish or two to show their children how to cut and put up salmon, which is like an unbelievably important cultural practice and spiritual practice, but also really critical to how these people survive and thrive off of the landscape that they live on.

Like these are not communities where you just go to the store and eat something else. That's not how it works. And so, we're hearing increasingly in our public forums and in management meetings that we don't know how to deal with these issues. They really don't. Because our policy systems are fairly rigid. And we don't know enough.

We hear over and over again these heartbreaking stories of of loss and cultural grief that's difficult to even comprehend as people have gone through, of course, the dramatic changes of just a couple of generations of Alaska being colonized and the culture changing dramatically and then now having the landscape also shift in such a profound way.

There's that way it shows up in our narratives that is just a record of our time, right, that I think we're all grappling with. How do we address this in a meaningful way? And then I increasingly see it kind of on the more rigid side showing up in policy discussions, right. I've been surprised, I would say even like seven or eight years ago when I started out in this realm, climate change wasn't something that was like tip of everyone's tongue.

It was something that  the more environmental kind of crowd chatted about. Definitely fishermen were comfortable talking about climate change because, I mean, that's the unique thing about fishermen is like it doesn't matter their politics or anything. Like they live in this ecosystem. They see the changes happening, so it's not an uncommon topic, but just the amount it has increased as a focus in direct policy conversation in the last couple of years is really incredible.

And the policy folks, decision makers are really struggling with how to deal with it. Our management systems are not very adaptive. Now we're experiencing change in individual stocks and within the ecosystem that are so quick and so complex that we're finding our management systems are ill equipped to respond to them effectively. 

And so we're really having to go back to the drawing board with individual communities and individual management plans and say, like, how do we make this more resilient to incredible change? So that's the kind of conversation you'll hear on the policy level.


One thing I would love to hear more about is the changes in fish stocks that you're seeing. What exactly are those changes?


I know we talked a little bit before about the Pacific blob and how it's impacting fisheries, this period of time that we had abnormally high temperatures in a large part of the Pacific. And so one of the impacts that we have really felt and have been learning about here in Alaska has had to do with Pacific cod, which is a really important species commercially around the world.

And we saw in the Gulf of Alaska here, a couple of years ago, an incredible crash in the Pacific cod stock. Really sudden, really abrupt. And over time, that's really been strongly connected to the blob. What scientists here have linked that to is how the temperature changes fish metabolism, and then the impacts trickling down from that.

Some fish really like nice cold water and they thrive in it, and Pacific cod like that. And what scientists found was Pacific cod that were subject to even slightly higher temperatures out in the ocean, that was an additional stressor for them, along with all the other normal stressors that little fish in that the big blue sea has to go through.

And one of those is that it increases their metabolism, which on its face doesn't sound like a bad thing. But what that means is suddenly these millions and millions of fish have to eat more prey species to achieve the same productivity, the same thriving that they did before. But there's a limit to that resource in the ocean. And so what we were seeing was the cod that were surviving were a smaller size at age.

I had fishermen I work with reporting long, skinny fish in their catches, right. Like just fish that didn't look right to them. And then specifically in the Gulf, we had just a huge stock crash. The ecosystem at that time could not support the population of cod that was there because of what they now needed to eat.

So that's just one small example of how a little change in the climate, the condition of the ocean, can transform an entire food web. Millions upon millions of animals. And when you think, like I think sometimes these shifts are minimized for people. And so I like to think about it like, okay, what if that happened to a human system?

What if you took the fifty million people that live on the West Coast and you turned up their metabolism just enough so that they all had to eat like 25% more food? That would fundamentally change the food supply needs in the United States and probably around the world if that happened. And that would have impacts across all communities, all different things from healthcare to poverty and all other kinds of wellness.


That was a really great picture. Thank you for that.


It's kind of amazing. Our systems of society and supplies of food and goods and services all seem very modern and very civilized. But we're like one little shift away from having to dramatically rethink all of that. The way that climate and the ecosystem mirrors our experience I think is underappreciated.

And as a writer, I wish that I took and had more time to focus on creative ways of showing those connections between our human lived reality and what the planet and the ecosystem is going through. I want to do that partly because I'm someone that lives as a part of this ecosystem really closely, at least here in Alaska.

As a fisherman, I see myself as an ambassador for that story. We often are craving, as people, a connection to the natural world. I think that's absolutely universal. And my hope is that fishermen and other people that live really in harmony with nature and closely to nature and understand its amazing parts and terrifying parts and wonderful things about it, that we can really communicate that to others. 


Awesome. So, Hannah, you told us about Pacific cod just now, but I also want to ask about salmon, since it's a huge part of the culture there. Can you maybe tell me more about what's going on with salmon and what are you noticing when you're fishing for it?


It’s a massive industry here and really important to the vast majority of families I know at least. Salmon is a major part of our diet and life. So it's really been difficult to watch some of the changes that we're seeing and really wondering how that will affect our salmon populations long term. I've seen fish moving deeper. So being unable to catch fish on hot days and hot seasons where they're diving much deeper than they ever have before.

We're seeing them travel in different patterns than we have before. I know a number of fishermen that have really tried to adapt to that. They have temperature gauges on the bottom of their boat. They have found if they drive around and look for the water that is one degree less in temperature than the other currents around them, they'll get into the fish, right. But it's in different places that are counterintuitive to them. It's not where they historically learned to fish and how they learned to fish these areas. 

But as they're paying attention to the temperature, they're able to follow the salmon, which is really interesting. It's an interesting way to adapt. But it does show you that the animals are totally changing their behavior based on these things. And that adaptation is really hard. And some fishermen that have fished in the same place for many, many generations are finding they can't be successful at the place that their great grandfather was perhaps, because the fish aren't passing through there anymore. 

And because our fishery systems are quite rigid it's difficult for small-scale fishermen to adapt. We don't have the capital to just up and change fisheries. "Oh, I'm going to buy a different kind of boat and a different kind of gear and I'm going to go to this other place." It's difficult. And I mean, and that's just kind of the migration route example, right? 

Some of the other things, the size of fish are changing. I have seen news stories lately about restaurants in the Pacific Northwest they're starting to reject salmon that they get from producers because they're not the same fat filets that they're used to getting. But that's been a really tough thing for the industry to catch up with because the fish are smaller. You know, the nets that I built a couple of years ago are no longer appropriate for the fishery because I need smaller and smaller mesh to catch the fish that are out there.


Thank you for elaborating on the changes with salmon and also touching on the way in which people, fishermen, have to adapt because that was going to be my next question. But you answered it so well. 

I have a concluding question for you. You said a few times in our time together that our fisheries management system is pretty rigid. And in talking about climate right now and how it needs to be adaptive, what does that look like? How can our fisheries management systems be more adaptive?


I think one of the most important things we can do is look at our management processes and just the process for making a decision and a management action and see where we can make it more timely. One of the things we struggle with in federal fisheries is that decisions and changes to management take years from idea to execution. If that even happens, you know, like four, five, six, seven years. That's not quick enough to adapt to some of the emergent needs we're seeing due to climate. 

Sometimes you see a stock crash, like we're seeing some unbelievable crab crashes in the Bering Sea right now. Red king crab, snow crab, animals that have been thriving industries and subsistence resources for many, many years. And some of the things that crabbers are asking for is habitat protections and some kind of critical measures to protect those stocks and allow them some recovery time at this moment where they're right at that regime shift, that tipping point. But it's really, really tough in our management system and that kind of structure that we've gotten used to to make those quick decisions.

And partly that's good. Partly we don't want to make rash decisions. We want our decisions to be science-based and sound and responsible and inclusive of lots of different kinds of information. But we also need to improve our ability to respond quickly and to make hard decisions about how much we're harvesting. I think we need to be able and willing to make hard choices when it comes to harvesting in order to be conservative about habitats and about stocks that may be in trouble, and have a management system that's prepared to do that.

There's also ways to shift how we harvest, whether that's time and area changes or gear changes that would be helpful. So I think we need to empower fisheries to make those kinds of changes and not get locked into one specific manner of harvest. Be willing to shift those things and not create systems that are dependent on never shifting the way you do business.

Basing decisions purely on the economic engine just isn't sustainable in my mind. That being said, I say that as a fisherman that fully believes in the importance of a thriving seafood industry and a global seafood supply. I understand the importance and value of that economics, but also really want to see us shift our expectations of that and our responses to climate change in a time that seems to be quite critical.


Yes, it'll take hard, timely and responsible decisions. Great. Thank you, Hannah, for sharing space with me and your knowledge. I loved learning more about commercial fishing and salmon and life in Alaska. And also, I really think that we're up to something there with our thoughts and ideas of amping up the cultural diversity in seafood. So we might have to talk later about that. 

To our listeners you can learn more about some of Hannah's work at This is Alliyah signing off, till next time.