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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

May 13, 2012 at 1:59 PM

International Pacific Halibut Commission provide answers to questions about the big flatfish


The International Pacific Halibut Commission website has a wonderful page that provides frequently asked questions about halibut.

The website itself also has a wealth of information for anglers wanting more details on one of the bigger sport caught species in our West Coast marine areas.

1: Where have all the big fish gone?

For a simple question, this has a bit of a complicated answer. The simple answer is, they are still here. Or at least the same age fish are still here. For the past 15 years or so, halibut growth rates have been depressed to levels that haven’t been seen since the 1920’s. Both females and male halibut have the potential to grow rapidly until about age 10, about 2 inches per year for males and 2.5 inches for females. Thereafter, females have the potential to grow even faster, while males generally would slow down relative to female growth. Growth rates for these larger fish in the last 10 or so years are more on the order of one inch or less per year. This translates into a much smaller fish at any given age. There was a dramatic increase in halibut growth rates in the middle of this century, especially in Alaska. Sometime around 1980, growth rates started to drop, and now Alaska halibut of a given age and sex are about the same size as they were in the 1920’s. For example, in the northern Gulf of Alaska, an 11-year-old female halibut weighed about 20 pounds in the 1920’s, nearly 50 pounds in the 1970’s, and now again about 20 pounds. The reasons for both the increase and the decrease are not yet known but may be tied to increased abundance of other species, such as arrowtooth flounder, and availability of food supply.

2: How do you catch a halibut?

Basically, you put a baited hook into the ocean and hold on! But realistically, in most areas you need to have a state/provincial/federal fishing license, and then check the fishing regulations to make sure the area is open for fishing, how many halibut you can catch, and what size of fish can be kept. Once that is out of the way, you can catch halibut in almost any saltwater from northern California through British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska, and into the Bering Sea. Most halibut are caught on the bottom, and a couple hundred feet is not too deep to be fishing. There are more halibut in the central Gulf of Alaska, so you will probably catch a halibut more quickly if you fish in those waters.

3: I thought Oregon (or Washington, or B.C., or Alaska) did halibut management!

No. Halibut management has been and continues to be the overall responsibility of the International Pacific Halibut Commission. With offices in Seattle, the IPHC has been the principle management authority for Pacific halibut throughout its range since 1923. We do, however, leave the development of allocation decisions and enforcement of regulations to the states or governments where the fisheries occur.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), originally called the International Fisheries Commission, was established in 1923 by a Convention between the governments of Canada and the United States of America. Its mandate is research on and management of the stocks of Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) within the Convention waters of both nations. The IPHC consists of three government-appointed commissioners for each country who serve their terms at the pleasure of the President of the United States and the Canadian government respectively.

4: Why do the commercial guys get the entire quota?

They don’t, although they do get the largest share of what’s usually available for harvest. Right now, coastwide, the commercial fishers get to harvest about 67% of the available fish, subsistence fishers take about 2%, while sports fishers get to take about 11%. This varies by area, and is the result of allocative decisions made by the US and Canadian governing bodies.

5: What’s the oldest halibut? How old is a 100 pound halibut?

The oldest halibut on record – both females and males – were 55 years old. The IPHC has been ‘reading’ halibut ear bones (or otoliths) since the 1920s, counting the annual rings to determine age. In that time, we have read literally millions of otoliths to get halibut ages. Females grow faster than males, and these days males probably would never reach 100 pounds. A 100 pounder (round weight) today averages around 19 years of age.

6: Wouldn’t a maximum size limit help preserve the female spawners?

No. IPHC biologists see no benefit to preserving the largest females from a conservation standpoint. There are plenty of small halibut available to grow into the large fish we all like to catch and eat. According to the Bluebook handout for the 1999 IPHC Annual Meeting, implementing a maximum commercial size limit of 50 inches (or 150 cm, about 80 lbs) does not appear to add substantial protection to the stock to justify a change in regulations.5 While large females can each spawn many more eggs than medium-sized females, their overall reproductive contribution is nevertheless small as not many females reach those large sizes under the current reduced growth rates.

7: What’s the best bait for halibut?

Halibut are a top predator and eat just about everything that swims or crawls in the sea. Juveniles consume small crustaceans and other benthic organisms. Mature halibut prey on cod, pollock, sablefish, rockfish, turbot, sculpins, other flatfish, sand lance, herring, octopus, crabs, clams, and occasionally smaller halibut. Good bait is something that puts out a good ‘scent’ to attract halibut. Common sport or commercial baits include salmon, flounder, herring, anchovy, squid or octopus.

8: Do halibut change sex?

No, what a crazy idea! Shrimp change sex, but halibut don’t! After the first few years of life, females grow faster than males, and so all of the really big halibut are female. This has given rise to a popular misconception that halibut are males when they are small and females when they are large.

9: Do halibut migrate? How far?

Halibut experience two types of migration; a compensatory migration, in which juveniles move from shallow nursery grounds to deeper areas on the shelf which they inhabit as adults, and annual migrations of adults from the summer feeding grounds to winter spawning grounds. The compensatory migration happens after initial growth on the nursery grounds, around ages two or three This migration can take several years to complete, and is usually over once they find a summer feeding ground. Some halibut continue to migrate in subsequent years, moving to more eastward grounds. The longest migration on record was that of a fish tagged near Atka Island in the Aleutian Islands, which was recaptured at Coos Bay, Oregon, a distance of 2,500 mi (4,023 km). Once halibut become mature, they seasonally migrate in the fall from the shallower (100 to 600 foot!) waters of the continental shelf to the bottom edge of the continental slope – as deep as 2,000 feet. But they also have a northern component to the fall migration – oftentimes moving many hundreds of miles north in the winter, and then back to their home grounds in the summer.

10: What’s the difference between California halibut and Pacific halibut?

The short answer is ‘just about everything’. They are both large flatfish, and that is where the similarities end. The Pacific halibut has its eyes on the right side, while the California halibut most often has its eyes on the left side (though in very rare cases it can be right-eyed as well). The Pacific halibut has been recorded up to almost 9 feet in length and 600 pounds while the California halibut has been recorded up to as 5 feet and 70 pounds. While some California halibut have been found as far north as British Columbia, for the most part they are found in California and southern Oregon. The range of Pacific halibut starts in northern California and extends into the Bering Sea.

11: What’s the record weight for California, Oregon, Washington, B.C., and/or Alaska sport-caught halibut?

Weight and length go hand in hand with most fish, and Pacific halibut are no exception. The upper size limit appears to be around 100 inches (or about 250 cm). The Alaska sport record is 459 pounds and 99 inches (251cm) caught in 1996.8 A 7-foot long halibut weighing 320 pounds was caught off British Columbia’s Langara Island.9 The sport record in Washington is a 288-pound monster caught on Swiftsure Bank in 1989.10 Oregon doesn’t list halibut in their ‘big fish’ records page.11 but a huge fish in Oregon would be around 150 pounds. There are quite likely bigger ones in the southern regions, but they are rare. Keep in mind that sport fish are usually weighed just as they are caught, head-on and guts in, while commercial catch is tracked gutted, head-off, and washed!

12: Why does the Columbia River sport area get so little quota?

The IPHC assesses the size of the halibut stock, and determines the amount of fish available for harvest by major regions, e.g., Washington/Oregon/California, British Columbia, southeastern Alaska, etc. Within each region, local management agencies or councils determine how the available yield is to be divided among the fishing sectors. Off the US west coast area, which is called Area 2A, the Pacific Fishery Management Council allocates removals among the tribal, commercial, and sports fishing sectors.12 Next, the amount of fish assigned to each sector is further divided among smaller local areas in order to distribute the harvest across the coast. The relatively small quota in the Columbia River area reflects the reality of how much fish is there relative to the rest of the region.

(FAQ’s provided by IPHC website. Photo courtesy of Don Wood of Kent who caught a 140 pound halibut on May 5 in the northern part of Admiralty Inlet.)



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