HOMER -- 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, Oregon. About a week ago, Jordan and Steve Andrecht with Scott and Don Shepherd caught their limit of eight halibut. Sizes ranged from 8 to 35 pounds.
"We were really very happy with our catch," said Don Shepherd while waiting at the charter outfit called Buttwhackers, where his fish were filleted before a sizeable crowd.
This year, for the first time, anglers fishing aboard charter boats have a restriction on their two-fish limit. While one halibut can be of any size, the second must be less than 29 inches.
Yet as a conservation measure in an age when halibut stocks across the West Coast are decreasing, this may prove problematic, some local charter captains warn. 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, halibut less than 29 inches -- that is, smaller ones that could use more growing time -- are caught and kept.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service implemented the size restriction on the charter fishery this year. Regulations for commercial fishermen were not changed. They must release all halibut under 32 inches, but can keep anything bigger. There have been discussions of requiring commercial fishermen to keep smaller fish, but commercial fishing interests say those fish are not marketable.
With fewer and fewer mature halibut swimming around in the North Pacific Ocean, catch limits for both commercial fishermen and sport-fishing charters are dropping. In the Alaska Gulf -- Area 3A including Homer, Seward, Kodiak and Valdez -- fishermen were allotted a 2014 total harvest of 9.43 million pounds -- with 77.5 percent designated for the commercial sector and 18.9 percent for the guided sport sector.
There is no quota for unguided anglers, whose catch is governed only by a daily limit of two halibut of any size. Because of that, more anglers may seek their own access to the halibut fishery. A kayak fishery for halibut now appears to be developing in Cook Inlet, as this video demonstrates. And halibut surf casters are popping up too.
One trip daily
In Southcentral Alaska's 3A district, charter vessels are also limited to 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, Montgomery said.
The one-trip-per-day restriction also cuts the number of seats offered to anglers. That has presented another problem as fishermen flock to Homer, 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 about 20 percent from what they should be, said Lavrakas. Last year, about 15,000 tickets were sold at $10 each, revenue that supports the derby and chamber operations.One fishing charter operation doing business on the Homer Spit told the chamber it turned away 580 clients in one month because they couldn't get them seats on the company's boats, Lavrakas said.
To help answer visitor questions, the chamber opened the Halibut Derby Headquarters office full time on Homer Spit this summer. Some 30-40 people per day walk in on weekdays and more on weekends. The chamber sells some halibut derby tickets there, but most tickets are sold by the charter boats directly to their clients, he said. In previous years, two daily trips was the norm for some halibut charters
Gary Ault, a Homer charter captain and past president of the Alaska Charter Association, said the charter 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. Many didn't qualify, and that chopped 20 percent off the size of the statewide fleet, from more than 1,000 boats to around 800, he said.
The new "one-and-a-half fish" limit, as Area 3A's bag limit is called, saddled the industry with new losses, Ault said. Cutting day trips to one adds to the 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."
Changes to halibut derby
The Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby has changed too, by bringing back its released fish category in which anglers can earn up to $1,000 by releasing a halibut at least 48 inches long.
Three years ago, in an effort to de-emphasize killing the big halibut, which are egg-bearing females, the Homer 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 to anglers landing 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 halibut is wearing a $50,000 tag. Last year, the halibut with the $50,000 tag was caught by an angler without a derby ticket.
Naomi Klouda is a reporter at the Homer Tribune, where this story first appeared. Used with permission.