July 2, 2008

California Officials Monitor Halibut Fishing

California wildlife officials have stepped up their monitoring of halibut fishing this year in response to concerns about overfishing.

In a domino-like reaction, many anglers turned to catching halibut in San Francisco Bay and other coastal waters this year after salmon fishing was closed in the state. The closures were a response to a sharp decline in that species.

Because halibut are believed to be unusually abundant this year, there is some debate about whether the additional fishing pressure will harm the species.

The Department of Fish and Game is conducting more monitoring of private recreational halibut landings, along with its reviews of commercial and party-boat landings. It also plans to increase its age-class analysis of commercially caught halibut on the Central Coast. That is done by dissecting and analyzing halibut ear bones to determine age, which is already done on other areas of the coast.

Unlike other ocean-going fishes, halibut are regulated solely by state wildlife officials. The state later this year will conduct its first-ever full formal stock assessment of halibut. In July, the department will do a hooking mortality study to determine survival rates for undersize halibut released by anglers. The study will entail catching halibut using different kinds of hooks and then releasing them into an aquarium and observing how they recover and survive.

"Although there is no indication that the halibut fishery is not sustainable, additional scientific data will allow us to better assess how the species should be managed, particularly in booming population years," said Donald Koch, Fish and Game director, in a statement.

The halibut fishery, especially in San Francisco Bay, this year has surprised anglers who feared their fishing season would be a bust after the salmon closure. Instead, many are catching their limit of three halibut per day, generally a rarity. That success has helped sustain businesses once dependent on salmon, such as charter boats and tackle shops.

"I don't know much about how many fish are being caught compared to other years," said Paul Reilly, a Fish and Game senior biologist based in Monterey. "It's just an unprecedented opportunity to have this many fish in San Francisco Bay at one time."