Alaska's longest-running halibut derby kicked off on Monday with organizers hoping to end an era of slender winners — and charter boat captains wondering if recent restrictions on the fishery will turn clients away.
For three of the last four years, the biggest fish in the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby has fallen short of the 300-pound mark, the only such streak in the derby's 31-year history.
In fact, Linda Scott's 224-pound winner two years ago was the smallest in Homer derby history.
And as the size of the winning flatfish has fallen, so too has participation, fueling a drop in prize money. Last year, Austin Nelson of North Pole took home $15,420 for his 252-pound winner. That's just 30 percent of the $51,298 that Don Hanks pocketed in 2004 for his 353-pound giant.
Anglers have four months to get lucky, as the derby runs though Sept. 15. The angler with the biggest halibut will earn $10,000, plus 50 cents for each derby ticket sold, but an array of other prizes are in the offing, too.
*Some 75 tagged fish worth between $250 and $50,000 are swimming in Kachemak Bay. Catch one of those, and a chicken halibut will never look better.
*Release a halibut measuring at least 48 inches, and you're eligible for a $1,000 prize.
*Kids' Prizes: Several for anglers less than 13 years old are offered.
"Changes to the rules have turned the focus away from catching large halibut, to promote conservation of the resource," the Homer Chamber of Commerce said in a press release, acknowledging the fact that the biggest halibut are always egg-bearing females.
"We're doing fine," said Diane Borgman, owner of Homer Ocean Charters, of the restrictions on Monday. "The weather's been nice and fishing's been good the last month."
Still, restrictions from the International Pacific Halibut Commission, part of an effort to rebuild halibut stocks, can sting. Among them:
*A two-fish daily bag limit, with one of the two measuring no more than 28 inches, typically a "chicken" halibut that weighs about 7 pounds after its head and guts have been removed. Since the rule went into effect, some charter boat captains have reported trouble finding fish small enough to satisfy the requirement.
*No halibut fishing for charters on Wednesdays all season, and none on Tuesday July 18, July 25 and Aug. 1. The Tuesday restrictions are new this year.
*An annual limit of four halibut for charter boat anglers.
"The worst was four fish for the season," Borgman said. "That was a killer. People spend a lot of money to come up here, and they want to fish three-to-five days.
"All of us (captains) feel a little leery."
But unguided anglers on private boats have it better — two fish a day, four in possession, no size limit, no annual limit. Halibut caught on private boats without a guide do not accrue toward a person's annual limit.
One consequence of the restrictions is that charters are increasingly moving to halibut-salmon combination trips, or targeting rockfish in an effort to ensure that clients, some of whom pay more than $300, can bring home fish flesh.
Last year, according to the state fisheries bottomfish biologist Scott Meyer in Homer, the commercial catch of halibut in Southcentral's Area 3A, which includes the sport fishing ports of Homer, Seward, Ninilchik, Kodiak and Whittier, was 7.68 million pounds — about 68 percent of the total — while the sport catch was 3.53 million pounds.
By limiting the catch, biologists hope to reverse a decades-long trend of shrinking flatfish. In area 3A, the average size of an 18-year-old female has declined from about 80 pounds in 1997 to 40 pounds. Biologists aren't certain why.
Anglers have four months to get lucky, as the derby runs though Sept. 15.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that charter vessels can no longer do overnight trips that allow anglers to bring home two limits from each side of midnight. In fact, they can.