Charter operators report bigger halibut in Southcentral
Charter anglers throughout Alaska are experiencing strong halibut fishing, with large fish landed in several of the state’s derbies, although commercial reports have been more mixed.
Seward’s derby was won on the final day — June 30 — with a 312.2-pound fish caught by Oleg Gozobohenno from Moscow, Russia.
That’s larger than the winners from the last three years. A 211-pound fish took the lead in 2013, a 196.6-pounder won in 2012 and a 247-pound fish won in 2011.
Gozobohenno was fishing on Andy Mezirow’s CrackerJack Voyageur.
Mezirow wrote in an email that fishing has generally been strong out of Seward this summer, with the lead changing hands several times and more competition within the derby than in the past.
“The fishing in Seward has been significantly improved from past years and therefore the size of the fish entered into the tournament are larger, much larger, that the last two years,” he wrote.
The Homer Derby has also seen changes among the leader, with Ned Friedman catching the current top fish July 14. Friedman’s 227.8-pound fish is larger than the 2010 and 2013 winners, which were 277.6 pounds and 236.2 pounds, respectively, but smaller than the 350.8-pound and 323.2-pound fish that won in 2011 and 2012, respectively. That derby runs through Sept. 15.
Homer Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Lavrakas said at least a handful of fish heavier than 200 pounds had been weighed in, but the anglers hadn’t purchased derby tickets before fishing, so they weren’t eligible for a slot on the leaderboard.
Participation in the derby has still been strong, however, Lavrakas said. The chamber opened a mini office on the Homer Spit called the Derby Shack, and has been selling lots of derby tickets there, he said.
Other ports have also seen strong catches.
A California angler visiting Gustavus also pulled in a behemoth; Jack McGuire caught a 482-pound fish there July 3.
And in Whittier, charter operators have said fishing this year is better than it has been for about four years, with larger fish in the area.
Southcentral anglers on charter vessels are also operating under a new limit this year that allows them to keep one fish of any size, and requires that the second retained fish be less than or equal to 29 inches.
Mezirow said that on his vessel, clients have tossed back 39 halibut that weighed more than 80 pounds, including four that were more than 200 pounds.
Charter operators have also started using the guided angler fish, or GAF, program, which allows them to offer their clients the opportunity to catch additional fish beyond the regular bag limits by leasing quota from the commercial sector.
Through July 21, 480 halibut had been landed and reported through the GAF program in Southeast and Suthcentral Alaska ports. In Southeast, or Area 2C, a total of 1,025 GAF fish were transferred through that date, with 910 transferred in 3A, or Southcentral ports, although not all of the transferred fish have been used yet.
The halibut catches seem to be an uptick from the recent past, when halibut fishing hasn’t been as strong. Catch limits have also been reduced for the past several years in response to a declining biomass of legal-sized fish.
Lavrakas, in Homer, said he thought the fish around Homer were a larger class than in the recent past.
“We’re seeing generally bigger fish, more like the old days, bigger fish closer to Homer, being caught,” Lavrakas said.
Data on charter catches, beyond the use of GAF, is not yet available however — that is collected in paper logbooks, and not tabulated until the fall.
Commercial catches mixed
Commercial fishing reports are more mixed.
Mezirow, who also fishes commercially, said that catches out of Seward have been pretty good.
He noted, however, that it is an El Nino year, which is typically a better year for halibut fishing because it brings warmer water and more bait to the north gulf coast. Mezirow also noted that the commercial fishing sector in Southcentral has taken cuts for several years, and the charter sector took one this year.
“Maybe the combination of better ocean conditions, and conservation is what we need to turn around the decline in spawning biomass,” he wrote in an email.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission, which manages the halibut stock from northern California north to the Bering Sea, also hears anecdotal reports from commercial fishers all summer.
So far, the reports are similar to last year — in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, fishers are reporting reasonably good catch rates according to IPHC quantitative scientist Ian Stewart.
In the Western Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, there are some reports of good catch rates, and some reports of weaker catches.
Just halfway through the season, however, Stewart said it’s difficult to establish trend information.
According to a July 21 landings report from NMFS, commercial fishers offshore from Alaska had caught about 58 percent of the halibut harvest, or 9.3 million pounds out of a 15.9 million pound limit. The season opened in March, and runs until Nov. 7.
Catches were strongest so far in Area 2C, or Southeast Alaska, where fishers have made 727 vessel landings for a total 2.19 million pounds, or 66 percent of the catch limit.
Landings have been slowest in the Bering Sea — fishers in Areas 4A and 4B have caught 44 and 43 percent of their limits, respectively, or a total of about 762,539 pounds out of a 1.76 million pound limit.
Halibut landings by Community Development Quota groups in that region have been slightly higher — about 54 percent of the quota has been taken, or 429,936 pounds in areas 4BCDE, out of a total allocation of 797,080 pounds.
Through July 21, Kodiak leads for the number of vessel landings, while Homer leads in terms of total pounds. At Kodiak, 1.33 million pounds of halibut have been delivered in 238 vessel landings. At Homer, 1.68 million pounds have been landed in 214 landings. At Seward, about 1.28 million pounds have been taken in 205 landings.
Landings in several of the ports that are typically strong — such as Sitka and Yakutat — are still classified as confidential. Data is confidential when fewer than three processors or three vessels have taken or made deliveries.
Summer data informs winter decisions
Both the numbers and the stories from this summer’s halibut fishery will eventually factor into decisions about 2015 catch limits.
Throughout the summer, Stewart and his colleagues are collecting information that will contribute to an updated stock assessment this fall. The stock assessment will be used in January to help the commission decide the 2015 catch limits.
“We use essentially real time data in the stock assessment,” Stewart said.
The commission collects logbooks from throughout the halibut fishery that provide a quantitative record of the catch throughout the season.
The logbooks include catch rate data and fish sizes. Port samplers also take otoliths, which the IPHC uses to determine fish ages.
“We have an amazing amount of logbook data,” Stewart said.
Port samplers collect the logbooks, and the IPHC also asks fishers to mail them in if they don’t encounter a port sampler when making deliveries.
All of that information is available pretty quickly after the fishing season ends, as its collected regularly throughout the season, so it can be incorporated into the stock assessment.
The IPHC collects otoliths, or ear bones, to get age estimates, both through port samplers and from its summer surveys. Those are broken and baked, and then the rings are counted — much like tree rings — to estimate the age of the fish. By fall, the commission will have age information for about 20,000 fish, Stewart said.
Anecdotal reports find their way into the commission process, too — when the commission sits down to discuss catch limits.
Stewart said there’s room for fishers to tell the commissioners what they are seeing in a given region, and the commission can take that into account as it sets the limits.
He described it as “really valuable” to see people provide that information.
It’s a “really healthy part of the process,” Stewart said.