Halibut season underway.

It’s a bit of a challenge to think ahead to spring and summer oriented fishing adventures when dealing with yet another blast of old man winter but nevertheless planning for the 2017 season continues apace. The latest decision that will impact the regional recreational fishery in saltwater is an outcome of the annual meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission which took place in late January.

The upshot of the negotiations that occurred between Canada and the US is that our national total allowable catch in what under IPHC parlance is known as Area 2B increased by 150,000lbs compared to last year, a small portion of which will accrue to the recreational share. After deductions from the national TAC for First Nations food fisheries and a category known as commercial wastage, and then the sharing of the remainder on an 85/15% split between the commercial and recreational fisheries, the recreational allowable catch is 1.18 million pounds for 2017.

Sounds like a lot but due to the popularity of halibut fishing wherever they are found unless managed conservatively there’s a considerable likelihood that the fishery would close down mid-summer if it is estimated that the TAC has been reached. This is the reason that various size, daily and season limits have come into place in recent years, with the overarching objective being to have a full season from February 1 to December 31.

So the good news is that the 2017 recreational halibut season is now open and until the end of the current license year March 31 the regulations are the same as for the previous calendar year – 1 halibut/day, 2 in possession away from home, with a maximum size limit of 133 cm for one of those fish and 83 cm for the other. Once again there is an annual limit of 6 halibut per angler.

It’s a bit awkward having the license year out of synch with the calendar year, or more accurately, with the IPHC catch year but that’s just the way things are. More importantly at this time it raises the possibility that the regulations may change with the start of the new license year. Given the recreational TAC for 2017 this is unlikely and the Sport Fishing Advisory Board very recently advised DFO on a continuation of the current regulations for the remainder of the year and my own guess is that the department will agree, however there’s no guarantee.

One new consideration in the development of recreational halibut catch estimates is the incorporation of what is known as iRec data. This acronym stands for internet recreational effort and catch, a program that because all marine recreational licenses are now purchased on-line enables the use of e-mail address’s to survey anglers about their fishing activities, an important addition to the more customary dockside creel surveys and logbook data from participating guides and lodges and especially so in those times and areas where no creel surveys take place.

The addition and merging of iRec data with other sources has to be used cautiously and balanced against catch estimations from more well known methods. Using these various data collection tools the best estimate is that the recreational fishery has been slightly under-fishing its allocation in recent years. Making projections on the recreational halibut catch is subject to many variables over which there is little control, for example weather, price of gas, how good or poor fishing is for other species like chinook salmon and so on. The fact that the model upon which such calculations are worked out has developed a statistically valid track record is something to celebrate but one season of unusually calm weather combined with cheaper than usual gas and/or slower than usual chinook fishing, leading to a spike in halibut fishing in outside waters, and all bets are off.

A joint DFO/SFAB working group reviews the recreational catch data in-season and should the estimates point to the recreational cap being exceeded if the fishery were to continue then it would have no choice but to recommend an early closure. Canada is bound under the terms of the halibut treaty not to overfish its annual TAC and so in turn the various fishery sectors must not overfish their own fishery caps. Closure in the fall would be one thing but a mid-summer closure would be disastrous and call into question the management regime.

Of course such a scenario raises the question once again as to why the recreational fishery has such a restrictive cap when there’s no conservation requirement for it. Under the current regulations anglers are required to release halibut larger than about 70 pounds, all of which are the prime female broodstock sustaining the resource, but you can bet that any commercial fisherman wouldn’t hesitate to keep such fish. No case has ever been made that halibut caught in the commercial fishery generate a larger economic benefit to Canada than do those in the recreational fishery but unfortunately the political decision made back in 2003 to allocate the catch shares between the two fisheries in such an unbalanced way has stood the test of time, so far at least.
About the only thing good about it is that the recreational share of 15% is three times larger than what the commercial sector recommended in the early allocation discussions!

Anyway, how long the season lasts is all in the future so get out there when sea conditions – settled weather and slow tides – best allow for dedicated halibut fishing and catch your share. Good luck!

133 cm halibut (70lbs +/-), maximum retention length
133 cm halibut (70lbs +/-), maximum retention length