The incredible Shrinking Halibut
Not everywhere just at ports that have been overfished, With more Big Breeders gone the larger fish Genetics are lost with them.
Last years winner came from a multiple day long range boat a long way from Homer.
Homer Halibut Derby participation shrinks along with the flatfish
Like its namesake fish, the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby is shrinking and shrinking some more.
Organizers of Alaska’s largest fishing derby this week posted the winners of their summer-long derby that stretches from May to September, topped by Linda Scott of Bloomington, Minnesota, who reeled in the summer’s biggest derby fish, a 224-pounder. While more than a tenth of a ton of halibut sounds hefty, virtually everything about the derby is shrinking.
• Scott’s fish was the lightest winner in the derby’s 30-year history, a whopping 134 pounds shy of the 2007 Derby record.
• The number of derby tickets sold declined for the second-consecutive year to 10,433, down 31 percent since 2013.
• Consequently, prize money is down, too. As recently as 2004, derby champion Don Sparks went home with $51,298 but Scott earned less than a third of that, just $15,216. Part of the reason is rule changes by derby organizers to spread out the winnings to tagged fish and other categories while de-emphasizing big fish.
• Charter halibut fishing was banned on Thursdays in the heart of the season, from June to August.
• As they have for several years now, charter anglers’ two-fish limit was again restricted to one big flatfish of any size and one pipsqueak less than 29 inches. But new this year was a seasonal charter limit of five halibut, another move by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to conserve the resource, even though commercial halibut fishermen take about 80 percent of it.
“The charter industry is probably the cleanest fishery there is, and we’ve just gotten hammered the last few years,” Diane Borgman, owner of Homer Ocean Charters, said on Tuesday about restrictions imposed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the council.
“Industry-wide, just those Thursdays alone, we’ve got maybe $1 million in lost revenue, maybe more.," she said. "We’ve got four boats, so that’s about 40 people we could technically take out on Thursday.
“What I’m seeing is a decline in Alaska residents going out because of the new rules, and I’m seeing a decline in the number of people coming to fish multiple days," Borgman said. "That’s lost revenue in terms of lodging, restaurants and the other things they do while they’re here.”
Still, lots of people fished, and Scott proved you don’t need to be an avid angler to pocket serious cash.
Scott’s July trip aboard David Bayes’ boat, the Grand Aleutian, was just the second charter-fishing trip of her life.
“I’m not really a fisherman,” she acknowledged, but her husband persuaded her to give it a try. “I had no idea how big a fish could be. It was very shocking. I’d never seen what a halibut looks like until this one got close to the boat, but they’re ugly.
“I was a little surprised they were going to shoot it," she said. "We don’t do that kind of thing in Minnesota.”
But Bayes’ crew shot the big fish three times with a .38 special to subdue it after Scott cranked it in for 45 minutes, leaving her “quite sore the next day.”
Neither Scott nor Bayes thought the 224-pounder would hang onto its lead over the final weeks of the derby, but nobody came close and history was made. For Bayes, it was the second time in three years one of his clients brought in the winning fish. Plus Anchorage angler Nathan Bruns caught a 189-pound halibut aboard the Grand Aleutian this year, grabbing third place behind Scott.
But despite the occasional big mama (the largest halibut are all females), the average halibut size continues to shrink, according to Scott Meyer, the statewide bottomfish coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“We’re seeing a continued decline in the size of halibut,” he said Wednesday of a trend that has continued for more than two decades in parts of Alaska. “But it’s not happening everywhere,” he cautioned. “There’s very little decline in the Aleutians and the Bering Sea, for instance.”
But in what is known as Area 3A, a Gulf of Alaska zone that includes some of the state’s major ports for charter halibut fishing, including Homer, Seward, Kodiak, Ninilchik and Whittier, the average size of an 18-year-old female halibut has declined from more than 80 pounds in 1997 to about 40 pounds last year.
Scientists don’t know why, but theories abound, including fishing pressure; competition from arrowtooth flounder, a plentiful fish with no commercial value that inhabits many of the same areas as halibut; and even genetic changes that could be selecting for smaller fish.
Bayes, the captain with a knack for finding hefty halibut, allowed, “I’m a pretty big fan of taking the emphasis away from the bigger fish. I like better having a $50,000 tagged fish out there. That’s what more people talk about on the boat, getting a tagged fish.”
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com