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Let that barn door go, fisherman, and we’ll have halibut for years to come

Shannyn Moore

It’s been quite a week for the country. The Supreme Court has, despite a few judges who are holdovers from the dark ages, ruled a few things right. Wahoo! Gay weddings and access to health care! Wait. The working poor and our LGBT brothers and sisters are considered “people” by the court? It’s like they are corporations or something!  Because I’m not able to express my thoughts about the recent racially motivated slaughter in South Carolina without a string of bleeps and asterisks, I thought I’d write about fishing issues –something safe from controversy (cough).

This week a friend posted the latest derby leader in the Seward Halibut Derby. The current standing is 291 pounds of flat fish.

His post included, “We should no longer condone keeping these huge fish. It’s terrible for the long term health of the resource and they taste lousy.”

I’m treading in dangerous water here, folks. I was born in the Halibut Capital of the World and home of the longest running halibut derby. Celebrating the biggest caught halibut is like celebrating a family for having 20 kids — it’s not sustainable. To say it’s irresponsible is to put it mildly.

To one point of my friend’s claim they taste lousy — well, put it this way, would you eat a 25- or 30-year-old cow? Mmmm … tender, like a piece of wood. I prefer beef aged off the hoof. It’s hard to break this to folks, but halibut is the fish people who don’t like fish love to eat. The “chickens” are the best — the small ones. If you’re just fishing for a Facebook status, well, the bigger fish are cooler, but the fishery is paying a price for you to get more likes than pounds of fish.

Boy halibut and girl halibut are different. The boys stop growing at 70 pounds. Any halibut over that amount are chick fish. Way to go, ladies! The point of a lady halibut is to avoid all eating disorders and make lots of fish fry. The bigger the better. The giant fish you see strung up at docks are the nursery for future halibut.

The Homer Halibut Derby gives you a chance to win $500 if you let a fish over 48 inches free. So far Trevyn Days has been the only one to release such a fish and did win $500. So we give a few hundred bucks to a fisherman who realizes the value to that fish being back on the bottom, but tens of thousands if you keep a big one. That makes no sense.

How about this: If you catch a fish over 48 inches and want to keep it that’s fine, but you are entered into a derby to have to pay $10,000 to halibut habitat and nursery programs.

Pretty sure there are a few halibut charter people cross with me right now, but they should know I don’t blame them. They go along with the rules and have been the ones limited while bycatch continues to the tune of millions of pounds dumped overboard because they aren’t pollock or cod.

I guess that’s why I’m writing this. I want people to fish. It’s part of who we are, and I love pulling up a barn door of a halibut and having my arms feel like they were going to be as long as the boat by the time I could see what I’d caught. That’s amazing. I have halibut insecurity when I don’t have at least a few pounds put up in the freezer for a ceviche or beer batter night. There are still lots of halibut — they just aren’t very big and we need the big ones to keep making whoopie in the the bottom of the ocean to make sure there are fish for future generations.

If you read the latest reports from the Halibut Commission — and I do because I’m nerdy about fish — you’ll see the numbers of fish aren’t the problem as much as size. They seem to be growing slower. They have to compete for food in a way they haven’t before because of the change in water temperature, which is bringing in other species.

I’m not asking for some new fish rules to deal with this issue. I just want folks going out to have a great day on the water and bounce a halibut hook across the bottom to think about it before they take out the giant halibut hens that are laying the golden eggs of our future stocks.

Thanks, Trevyn Days. Fish on, folks.

Shannyn Moore is a radio broadcaster.

Sport-Caught Halibut Equals Commercial Harvest around Icy Strait

10574293_10102445015501233_2109706822648856674_n-2Historically, commercial halibut harvest in Alaska made up a much larger portion of the halibut catch than sport-caught harvest. But times are changing and it may be time to change that perception. In the past 20 years, commercial harvest has declined and sport harvest has increased. In some specific areas like Icy Strait-Glacier Bay-Cross Sound, commercial harvest and sport harvests were about the same in 2012-13 (Table 1).

All fishermen are responsible for the vitality of Alaska’s halibut.



Table 1. Pacific halibut harvest in 2012-13 across fisheries for “Greater Icy Strait.” Greater Icy Strait is defined to include Cross Sound, Icy Strait and Glacier Bay, corresponding to commercial harvest statistical areas 181, 182 and 184. Commercial harvest was recorded in pounds (lbs). Sport harvest data are from area G, “Glacier Bay,”(2C only, 3A omitted). Sport-caught halibut were harvested in terms of numbers of fish and converted to pounds based on average fish weights from ADF&G Final Sport Halibut Harvest Estimates. In 2012 average fish weights were 22.2 lbs/guided sport fish and 26.4 lbs/non-guided sport fish. In 2013 average fish weights were 20.9 lbs/guided sport fish and 27.5 lbs/non-guided sport fish.

2012 2013
Commercial harvest * 453,549 530,369
Guided sport fishing ** 181,485 185,592
Non-guided sport fishing *** 274,717 328,592
Total sport harvest 456,202 514,184
* International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) data
** Charter Log Book data. Charter harvests from west of Cape Spencer (area 3A) were omitted.
*** Alaska Department of Fish & Game Statewide Harvest Survey (SWHS) by mail.

2015 CATCH Proposal

The 2015 CATCH PROPOSAL (Catch Accountability Through Compensated Halibut) aims to increase the allowable charter sport fishing harvest of halibut through permanent purchase of commercial fishery halibut quota (IFQs). Not to be confused with the 2014 Catch Sharing Plan, the CATCH proposal would permanently transfer 587,000 lbs of halibut in Southeast Alaska and ­­­­­­­­­­­785,000 lbs in Southcentral Alaska from the commercial long-line fishery to the charter fishery through purchase of IFQ from commercial fishermen. These fish would not belong to charter captains outright, but to their clients, and would be held by a Recreational Quota Entity (RQE). The purchase would be funded by a state halibut stamp or other means but not by direct purchase of the IFQ by charter captains.

The purchased halibut IFQ would be permanently subtracted from the commercial fishery catch and added to the allowable charter sport fishing catch. The CATCH proposal would mean a decrease in the commercial catch and an increase in the charter catch. Compared with the 2015 allocations, this would correspond with a 15.6% decrease in commercial catch and a 69% increase in the charter catch. Few Alaskans seem aware of this proposal even though it appears on the NPFMC website, received initial consideration at the NPFMC meeting in Dec. 2014, and will be discussed further and likely moved forward at a June 2015 meeting in Sitka.

Local Area Halibut Depletions

Fishing for halibut is a rich experience whether you are a visitor to Alaska, a local fishing halibut for personal use, or a commercial fisherman. But abundance can be deceptive. According to a 2010 report by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), the number of halibut in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska has declined by 50% over the past 20 years.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) allocates target halibut harvest levels in terms of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC), calculated as 20% of the estimated mature halibut population after regional surveys. Subsistence, non-guided sport fishing, by-catch and research are accounted for first, fish are then allocated for commercial and guided-sport fishermen. Currently, guided sport-fishermen in Southeast Alaska hold 18.3% of the TAC and 81.7% of the harvest is allocated to commercial fishermen. The TAC in Southeast Alaska has gone down almost 70% since 2006.

While commercial harvest is much larger for the entire region, sport fishing can have an important impact on localized areas. According to statistics kept by the IPHC and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), the number of pounds of sport-caught fish in 2014 comprised 50% of the total harvest for combined areas of Icy Strait, Glacier Bay and Cross Sound, matching commercial catch in that area. Halibut sustainability is the responsibility of all fishermen.

Halibut fishing in Southeast Alaska often occurs within a 2-hour boat ride from communities, especially where tourism is popular, creating risk for local area halibut depletions. Regulations do not protect against local area depletions because the fishery is managed over large regions. Southeast Alaska (Area 2C) includes all waters from Cape Spencer to Ketchikan and extends 200 miles off-shore into the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, Southcentral Alaska (area 3A) includes Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska and waters around the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak – an arc 750 miles long. Total Allowable Catch is determined for each of these regions without regard to areas where fishing pressure is greater.

The existing prevention tool is the Local Area Management Plan (LAMP), a document created through community consensus and designed to limit the risk of halibut depletion in localized areas. While the tool exists the process is arduous and only Sitka has ever created one.

Management on a smaller scale is the solution – monitoring that will track halibut populations in localized areas. The allowable catch could then vary among areas depending on the condition of the halibut population there. But federal funding by the U.S. and Canada isn’t adequate for IPHC to survey and manage at that level.

The justification for the existing large-region management is that halibut are assumed to be panmictic, that is to say, they migrate and mix, mating randomly with halibut throughout the region and with larvae dispersing widely along the coast of Alaska. This way of thinking legitimizes management of all of the halibut in Southeast Alaska as one population, but the perspective may be too simplistic. Research suggests that after their winter migration, halibut often return to the same area where they summered the year before, making halibut sustainability an important issue near Alaska communities.

Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish (BOFFFF’s)

In Alaska halibut over 60 lbs are all females, the producers of generations to come. When a female halibut begins to reproduce (47”, 50 lbs) she has about 500,000 eggs, but a 77” fish (250 lbs) might have 4 million eggs. Trophy-sized fish are the most prolific breeders, otherwise known as Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish (BOFFFF’s).

Read more here:

The number of BOFFFF’s out there isn’t included in the model used by fishery managers to estimate the size of the halibut population.  That number doesn’t seem to help managers to make a better prediction of how many fish are out there, or how many fish will be out there next year. One theory is that there aren’t really enough of those fish left to make a difference.

The average size of halibut in southern Alaska has declined in recent decades. In the central Gulf of Alaska, 15-year-old females averaged 100 (net) lbs in the 1980s. In the late 2000s, a 15-year-old female halibut in the central Gulf averaged 28 pounds – a decline of 70% in 30 years. The waters of Icy Strait, Cross Sound and Glacier Bay National Park, draw sport fishermen from around the world because the fish size in that area is larger than the statewide average, according to statistics of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). In 2014 a record-breaking-sized halibut was caught in Icy Strait, measuring 95” long and weighing 482 lbs.  Technicalities of playing and landing it kept this fish from supplanting the existing sport-caught record halibut.

Alaska Halibut Forever encourages fishermen to leave those giants in the water and instead target modest-sized halibut if regulations permit.

Non-guided sport fishermen can take two fish of any size in a given day, but as of 2015 guided sport fishermen may keep one fish per person per day of either 42 inches and under or 80 inches and over. Under the 2014 “Halibut Catch-Sharing Plan (CSP),” some guided sport fishermen are permitted to keep a second fish in a day, of any size. These halibut are known as Guided Angler Fish (GAF), and are possible based on Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) leased by charter operators for one year.

The reverse-slot limit necessitates that guided fishermen release their fish until they catch one of the appropriate size, raising concerns about survival of the released fish. Starting in the summer of 2015 the charter fishery will be required to consider 5-6% of their released fish as dead-loss. For more information on halibut safe release, visit:

Now online!

Microsoft Word - Alaska Halibut Forever_logos.docx

Alaska Halibut Forever is now online! This group was created by people who live on the coast, fish for their food, and want halibut to remain plentiful into the future. Whereas salmon return to specific rivers, Pacific halibut live and travel up and down Alaska’s coastline, much as we do, and connect all of us through our work and our food. This group raises topics regarding halibut sustainability, with the goal that we will all be fishing and eating halibut for centuries to come.

Welcome to our site.