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In Homer Halibut Derby, size will matter less

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Alaska's biggest big-fish fishing derby has started the move away from big fish.

Officials of the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby announced Thursday they plan to reduce the prize for the largest flatfish caught there during the summer season to $10,000 and abandon monthly big-fish prizes in favor of drawings open to anglers who've caught and released halibut of 50 pounds or more.

The moves come at a time when the number of spawning-size halibut in the Gulf of Alaska is declining while sport and commercial fishermen battle over who should get to catch what. Halibut of more than 50 pounds are of interest to all parties because nearly everyone agrees those fish are spawning-age females, and an estimated 95 percent of them will survive to spawn if gently released by anglers.

Halibut derby officials had considered dumping the big-fish competition altogether in the name of conservation, even though state fisheries biologists pointed out that would be more symbolic than meaningful. The catch of big halibut in the commercial fishery dwarfs the sport catch, and there are some indications that truly monster halibut -- fish 225 pounds and up -- begin to lose reproductive capacity because of their age anyway.

Monte Davis, director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the plan on which the derby finally settled "is really an honest effort to be conservation minded.'' The derby has been a major fund raiser for the chamber more than two decades, but Davis said he has long been personally troubled by the large number of 75-to-150-pound halibut weighed in each month by anglers hoping to cash in on the monthly prizes -- even though they have no chance of winning the season-long jackpot.

Those fish, he said, are all prime spawners. If changing derby rules encourages even one angler to set such a fish free to spawn, "I feel good about it,'' Davis said. Whether releasing the fish has any real, biological meaning is another matter.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission, the U.S.-Canada treaty organization that sets quotas for halibut catches on the Pacific Coast, has historically opposed the implementation of maximum-size limits.

According to the commission, its "biologists see no conservation benefit to preserving the largest females. There are plenty of small halibut available to grow into the large fish we all like to catch and eat.''

When proposals for size limits for the commercial fishery have come up in the past, the commission has argued that "implementing a maximum commercial-size limit of 50 inches (about 80 pounds) does not appear to add substantial protection to the stock to justify a change in regulations. While large females can 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.''

Meeting in Anchorage in January, the commission was far more concerned about the bycatch of small halibut in the commercial trawl fishery than the take of large halibut in any hook-and-line fishery -- sport or commercial. Commission scientists noted there is a huge biomass of halibut in the North Pacific, but it is weighted toward fish smaller than 32 inches. And for unknown reasons, many of those sexually immature fish disappear before reaching spawning size.

Some biologists and fishermen are suspicious the small halibut are being cropped off as bycatch in the trawl fisheries. The commission has asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees trawl catches, to reduce the halibut bycatch by 20 percent this year, but whether the council does so remains to be seen.

It is against this backdrop that the future of the 26-year-old Homer derby has played out.

Many charter boat skippers in the self-proclaimed "Halibut Capital of the World'' recognize they have a bit of a public-relations problem with all the big, trophy halibut hung up for display at the end of each day's fishing at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Though even this year's shrunken commercial catch quota of 12 million pounds of halibut for the area from Yakutat north to Kodiak Island dwarfs the charter harvest level of just over 3 million pounds for the same area, appearances do tend to make it look like the charters are massacring the fish.

The big commercial catch slips almost unnoticed through Alaska ports, while the smaller charter catch is a spectacle.

With "conservation'' the watchword of the times, what the Homer derby is thus trying to shift its program away from an emphasis on killing big spawners. From this stems the decision to cap the prize for the biggest fish, change the monthly prices and shift focus toward smaller, tagged fish that a lucky angler might catch. Backed by sponsors GCI, an Alaska telecommunications company, and Stanley Ford of Kenai, there will be two valuable tagged fish swimming around in the Kachemak Bay-area this summer. An angler lucky enough to hook one could land $50,000 in cash. The other is good for a new Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Back in the day, of course, anyone lucky enough to land the biggest fish of the season might have been able to buy a couple of those trucks. The big-fish payout was historically 20 percent of the sales of tickets anglers are required to purchase to enter the derby. Derby ticket sales peaked in 2004, the year Don Hanks of Sparks, Nev., won the jackpot with a 353-pound fish.

He pocketed a record $51,298. Prizes have trended downward ever since as tourism has slipped in the wake of a national recession. Last year's derby winner caught a bigger halibut than McDowell, but he collected only $28,260 for it.

Davis believes the changes in the derby designed to protect big fish, tempt angers with tagged fish and spread the money around more each month will boost interest. Catch-and-release anglers will be vying for $1,000 in each of four monthly drawings.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com