Commercial halibut fishing is big business in Alaska. Halibut are valuable fish to humans because they are mild, good tasting, and have a white flesh. They are popular with sports fishermen because not only do they taste good but they are good fighters and grow very large. A halibut’s meat can be kept without refrigeration for a long period which made them an excellent target for commercial fishermen in the late 1800s. Today, halibut is considered a delicacy and often sells for $20 or more a pound in stores in the lower 48, making it a valuable source of income for commercial fishermen who target the species. Commercial and sports fishing for halibut are thriving industries in Alaska, and it is not an easy job to monitor halibut populations and allocate quotas to commercial fishermen, sport-fishing guides, private sports fishermen, and subsistence fishermen.
This week, I will describe how commercial fishing for halibut is done, how many pounds of halibut are caught per year, and how halibut fishing and fishing regulations have changed over the years. Next week, I will discuss techniques used to sport catch halibut and the regulations in the charter sportfishing business. I will also attempt to explain the different entities who set and implement halibut regulations in the state. Creating halibut regulations that are fair to all user groups is a complicated, frequently disputed, process. Tensions are often high between commercial and sports fisherman targeting the same species, and nowhere is this conflict more evident than between commercial and sports halibut fishermen.
Commercial fishing for halibut began in 1888 off the southern end of Vancouver Island, along the Canadian coast, and in Southeast Alaska. In the early years of the industry, fishermen caught halibut from small dories and then delivered their catch to large sailing vessels or steamships. As commercial halibut fishing became more popular, smaller schooners ranging from 60-100 ft. (18.3-30.5 m) were used. These schooners were specifically designed for halibut fishing and carried crews of five to eight men. Today, commercial halibut boats come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are usually boats that can be used in other fisheries, such as salmon seining or crabbing.
Commercial halibut fishing is done by longline. Halibut gear consists of units of leaded ground line in lengths of 100 fathoms ( 600 ft. or 183 m). These units of ground line are called “skates.” Hooks are attached to separate lines called “gangens,” and gangens are snapped or tied onto a skate. Each skate has about 100 hooks attached to it, and each hook is baited with fish or octopus. A “set” consists of one or more baited skates tied together and laid on the ocean bottom with anchors at each end. A floating line with a buoy is attached to each end of the set. Once fishermen deploy a set, they may let it soak for anywhere for two to 20 hours before pulling it.
Annual commercial halibut catches in Alaska hit 69 million pounds in 1915 but fell to 44 million pounds in 1931. Stricter fishing regulations helped the industry rebound, and in 1962, commercial fishermen harvested over 70 million pounds of halibut. Halibut catches then began to fall precipitously to a low of only 21 million pounds in the late 1970s. The harvest then again began to steadily rise to 70 million pounds per year by the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. The commercial catch has been decreasing ever since then.
Commercial halibut fishing was not effectively regulated until 1995. Before 1995, the commercial season often consisted of one or two 24-hour or 48-hour openings per year, and there was no limited entry. Anyone could fish from any vessel for halibut during an opening. Many fishermen loved this “race for the fish,” but not only was it impossible for The Alaska Department of Fish and Game to regulate how many pounds of halibut were caught during an opening, but the fishery became dangerous. Bad weather and treacherous seas during a halibut opening claimed many lives of fishermen using small boats in extreme ocean conditions. Since the fishery sometimes went nonstop for 48 hours, fishing crews became exhausted, causing some fishermen to make careless, life-threatening mistakes they would not normally make.
Since 1995, the commercial halibut industry in Alaska has been managed under an Individual Fishery Quota (IFQ) system. Based on catches from previous years, commercial fishermen were allotted IFQs. The number of halibut allowed per IFQ fluctuates depending on the health of the halibut population. IFQs can be bought and sold and are now quite valuable. The IFQ system was originally unpopular with many commercial fishermen, but it has resulted in longer seasons and safer boats fishing in better conditions. Also, since fishermen can catch their IFQ limits any time of the year when the season is open, fresh halibut is now available eight months out of the year.
I’ll be back with sports fishing for halibut next week. Since I am a sport-fishing guide, I can’t wait to tell you about my industry!
I know I mention this every week, but please sign up below for my free mystery newsletter about true crime in Alaska. My August newsletter will detail the murder of a woman who slid behind the wheel of her Volvo in downtown Anchorage and died instantly when a violent blast exploded her car.