Homer halibut derby gears up despite new catch limits

Mike Campbell
Jim Lavrakas

For 39 years, Southcentral Alaska anglers have been able to bring home two halibut of any size when fishing for one of the tastiest denizens of the deep. Fortunate fishermen were able to pack their freezers with dozens of pounds of filets from a single trip.

That's changing this year after the International Pacific Halibut Commission imposed what has been described as a one-and-a-half fish limit because one of the two halibut must be 29 inches or less -- a fish of about 8-10 pounds. The change is the result of a reworked catch-sharing plan that allocates more halibut to the commercial sector and away from sport charters. Southcentral anglers fishing from their own boats still have a two-fish-of-any-size limit.

The shift comes as Alaska's biggest sportfishing tournament, the 28th Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, kicks off Thursday morning. Thousands of anglers participate; last year about 15,000 derby tickets costing $10 apiece were sold.

"I don't think it's going to slow the charters down," said Jim Lavrakas, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce. "I don't. I'm hearing their bookings are up.

"What are you going to do? You're still going to want to get out and get fish for the freezer."

This year, though, flatfish anglers may encounter a bizarre new problem in the pursuit of a fish that can weigh more than 400 pounds -- hooking a halibut small enough to keep.

"Some of the guys who have fished already are finding it hard to find a fish under 29 inches," said Greg Sutter, a Homer charter captain and past president of the Alaska Charter Association. "They keep catching and throwing back fish that are too big."

Homer-based fishery biologist Scott Meyer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game agreed. "That's a pretty small fish.

"I have no idea what the overall impact (of the new regs) will be. I've heard different things from a few charter people. One guy thought it would be difficult to maintain bookings."

Those bookings can cost from about $220 to upward of $300, according to Sutter.

This year's change is the second major shift in the Homer derby since 2011. Three years ago, in an effort de-emphasize catching and killing of big halibut, which are egg-bearing females, the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby revamped 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 or more (the exact amount depends on how many derby tickets are sold), the derby now offers a wider array of prizes, mostly for catching tagged halibut.

Since early May, derby officials have been catching, tagging and releasing 115 flatfish into Kachemak Bay.

Last year, 29 of the 115 tagged fish were caught, earning prizes ranging from $250 to a Ford F150 pickup worth about $30,000. There's also a fish wearing a $50,000 tag -- a fish that was caught last year by an angler without a derby ticket.

To increase the suspense, anglers who catch a tagged fish don't know what prize it signifies until the derby ends in September.

The chamber still awards a "jackpot" prize to the angler catching the biggest fish. Last summer, that was a 236-pound halibut worth $21,281 to Gene Jones of Bellevue, Iowa, who was fishing aboard David Bayes' charter boat, the F/V Grand Aleutian.

Whether anglers will be satisfied with their prize prospects remains to be seen. But clearly, they'll be bringing home less fish flesh. In addition to the new restrictions, the average size of sport-caught halibut has been plummeting for years.

Back in 1997, Meyer said, the average sport-caught halibut weighed 22 pounds after it was headed and gutted. By 2000, it was still 20 pounds. Last year, it was just 13.2 pounds -- "the lowest average weight we've ever had."

Meyer believes the charter fleet will adapt to the new rules, perhaps offering more half-day trips that are less expensive. "I don't think it's going to be all gloom and doom."

And if the past is any indication, the rules governing sport halibut charters don't change rapidly.

The governing International Pacific Halibut Commission enacted its first halibut sportfish regulation in 1973, establishing a three-fish limit, Meyer said.

By 1975, it was down to two fish of any size. And there it stayed -- until now.

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell@alaskadispatch.com


Alaska Dispatch