• Half the trips means half the number of seats on charter vessels; Tossing back too many fish could spell conservation trouble ahead.
By Naomi Klouda
In the Halibut Capital of the World, it’s harder to catch a small fish than it is to reel in a big one.
That wasn’t an unhappy situation for four visitors from Roseburg, Ore. On Saturday Jordan and Steve Andrecht with Scott and Don Shepherd, caught their limit of eight halibut. Sizes ranged from 35 pounds to eight.
“We were really very happy with our catch,” said Don Shepherd while waiting at Buttwhackers where his fish were filleted before a sizeable crowd.
Yet, as a conservation measure in an age when halibut stocks across the west coast are steadily decreasing, this may prove problematic, some local charter captains are warning.
Jack Montgomery, owner of Rainbow Fishing Charters, is concerned about waste.
“A lot of fish caught that aren’t the right size get thrown back,” Montgomery said. Meanwhile, smaller halibut under 29 inches – therefore, younger ones that could use more growing time – are caught and kept.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service implemented the new catch limit impacting both commercial and sport fishing charters effective for 2014. In the Alaska Gulf – Area 3A including Homer, Seward, Kodiak and Valdez – fishermen are alloted a total harvest of 9.43 million pounds; 7.31 million commercial and 1.782 million for the guided sport sector.
For Southcentral Alaska’s 3A district, it means a two fish daily bag limit with size restrictions. Charter vessel anglers may keep one fish of any size per day and one fish that is no more than 29 inches. The 29-inch maximum size limit allows anglers to keep one fish that weighs up to approximately 8 pounds, after the head and guts have been removed.
New restrictions also set a trip limit: Charter vessels may only take one trip per calendar day.
For Rainbow Charters, Montgomery outlines this scenario: “On my boat, you have 20 people fishing. We’re almost full every day. They catch one fish in the 30-40 inch range,” he said.
“After that, they’re supposed to catch one 29 inches or less, but they are usually bigger than that. They bring up the fish from its depth, bring the fish out of the water. They take the hook out. Take it over to measure it. It’s too big so they throw it back.”
A lot of halibut get tossed back that way. The same halibut may get caught and thrown back again on the same day, Montgomery said.
Limited to going out once a day, as required in the new regs, also cuts the number of seats offered to anglers in half. That has presented another problem as fishermen flock to Homer planning on landing halibut during their stay, said Homer Chamber of Commerce Director Jim Lavrakas.
“”With fewer trips, there are fewer seats to sell,” Lavrakas said. “Other types of trips are being offered, more combo fishing trips. That’s a great idea. But we’re known as the Halibut Capital. People coming here want to catch halibut.”
Halibut derby ticket sales are down by 20 percent from what they should be, said Lavrakas. Last year’s banner ticket sales raked in 15,000 tickets at $10 each. This supports the derby and helps operate the chamber.
One fishing charter operation doing business on the Homer Spit told the chamber they turned away 580 clients in one month because they couldn’t get them seats on the fishing boats, Lavrakas said.
To help answer visitor questions, the chamber opened the Halibut Derby Headquarters office full time on the Homer Spit this summer. Walk-in numbers count 30-40 people per day on weekdays and 60 or so on weekends. The chamber sells some halibut derby tickets there, but the bigger number of tickets are sold by the charter boats directly to their fishing clients, he said. In previous years, two daily trips was the norm for many halibut charters. Now, the single-trip a day outings means half the potential derby ticket sales.
Gary Ault, a Homer charter captain and past president of the Alaska Charter Association, said the charter industry is taking a hit each year. In 2014, the industry was still adjusting to the new federal halibut permit requirements installed two years ago. Qualifying boats were required to apply for a halibut charter vessel fishing permit. Since many didn’t qualify, that chopped 30 percent of the statewide fleet, from over 1,000 boats to around 800, he said.
That move chopped a third of the seats available to anglers. The new “one and one-half fish” limit, as Area 3A’s bag limit is called, knocked the industry again in new losses, Ault said. Cutting day trips to one represents a further income loss.
“People who focused on halibut took a 50 percent beating right off the bat,” he said. “Who knows what’s going to happen next year? They change the regulations from year to year. We might get two fish back, we might be knocked back to one fish. We may get no fish.”
In a responsive move to both anglers and halibut conservation, the Homer Chamber has adjusted its annual derby. This year’s change is the second major shift in the Homer derby since 2011. Three years ago, in an effort de-emphasize killing the big halibut, which are egg-bearing females, the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby reorganized its prize structure. Instead of a winner-take-all format that awarded the angler landing the biggest halibut of the summer as much as $50,000, a variety of prizes go for caught tagged halibut.
Derby volunteers caught, tagged and released 115 flatfish into Kachemak Bay this spring.
Last year, 29 of the 115 tagged fish were caught, earning prizes ranging from $250 to a Ford F150 pickup worth about $30,000. One fish swimming around out there wears a $50,000 tag — a fish that was caught last year by an angler without a derby ticket.
Yet, in the Halibut Capital of the World, anglers can rest assured the chamber still awards a “jackpot” prize for catching the biggest fish.
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