A Halibut Free-For-All

by Alastair Bland, July 7, 2010

With the collapse of the West Coast’s salmon fishery, thousands of anglers have turned their attentions toward other more readily available species of fish, like rockfish, striped bass and lingcod. California halibut, though, may feel the hardest hit as a result of this so-called “effort shift” — especially now as the two- to three-foot floun­der flood through the Golden Gate toward the Berkeley Flats, the South Bay, and other shallow, sandy spawning grounds of San Francisco Bay. Some fishermen even worry that California halibut, while considered a healthy resource by most biologists, may soon begin to subside at the steady pressures of overfishing.

One particular threat to the California halibut, accord­ing to local party boat captains and others, is the commercial rod-and-reel halibut fishermen who are allowed by state law to work within San Francisco Bay, legally using multiple rods per person and even enjoying the liberty of keeping as many fish as they can catch. Keith Fraser, owner of Loch Lomond Bait Shop in San Rafael, says he has heard of small commercial skiffs landing 50 halibut in a day of fishing in the Bay.

But some sport anglers are taking their share of the toll, according to Berkeley-based party boat captain James Smith Jr. While sport fishermen must abide by a three-fish daily bag limit for California halibut, a regu­latory loophole in state laws, says Smith, can grant fish­ermen the legal leeway to catch and keep all the halibut they want. It’s simply a matter of paying for the privi­lege. A 2010 sport fishing license costs $41.50. The wallet-sized slip of paper allows its owner to fish in legal zones, usually with a rod and reel, while abiding by daily bag limits, size limits and seasonal restrictions.

But for just $120.75 over the counter at any of eight Department of Fish and Game offices statewide, a Cali­fornia resident may purchase a commercial fishing license. This allows one, still fishing with a rod and reel (over-the-counter commercial licenses do not permit one to use nets), to keep unlimited halibut. One’s boat must be registered, too — a $317 over-the-counter fee often shared among fishermen who use the same vessel.

However, no law requires that commercially licensed fishermen sell their fish, an allowance that blurs the line between who is fishing commercially and who is fishing recreationally with a commercial license. Don Kelly, a Fish and Game warden who patrols the waters of the South Bay, concedes that such activity is an “abuse” of the system but admitted that it’s entirely legal; commer­cial fishermen must only weigh in their catch at any of several certified fish receiving stations (Pier 45 in San Francisco is a major offloading point), report the weight to Fish and Game, and pay a landing tax of 1.25¢ per pound of halibut.

“Once the fish is weighed and the landing tax is paid, you can do whatever you want with the fish, whether you sell it or keep it,” Kelly said.

According to Smith, who operates the charter boat California Dawn, at least “a handful of guys” fish with commercial fishing licenses simply to bring their halibut home, “and there’s probably a whole bunch I don’t know about.” Smith would not name any such sport fishermen for concern of retribution but said that several of them have “six-figure jobs.”

“They don’t need to be out there competing with fish­ermen who are actually trying to make a living,” he said. “Where’s the justice in that for the guy who’s fish­ing commercially to sell his fish and feed his family?”

Party boat captain Bob Moncke has also seen sport fishermen pose as commercial fishermen without ever intending to sell their catch.

“There’s a lot of guys doing that now,” said Monke, who operates the boat Reel-Lentless out of Berkeley. “In my opinion, they shouldn’t be out there. If you’re just getting the commercial license to have extra rods onboard or to take the fish home, you shouldn’t be fish­ing.”

A commercial license allows a person fishing aboard a registered vessel to use up to four rods at a time and, when licensed crew members are aboard, up to six rods. Sport fishing licenses allow each angler the use of only one rod in San Francisco Bay waters.

The solution to preventing sport fishermen from entering the commercial rod-and-reel fishery could be simple, Moncke said: “I think (Fish and Game) needs to stop selling licenses and make this a closed fishery. You can’t even buy a (commercial) salmon permit anymore, or a crab permit. Halibut needs to have the same limits.”

Commercial crab, salmon and other fisheries are called “closed” or “limited entry” fisheries, operated by a fixed number of licensed fishermen, many of them long-time veterans. They may sell their permits to other fish­ermen or back to the Department of Fish and Game, but rarely are new permits issued.

But the commercial rod-and-reel halibut fishery is entirely open; pay $121 over the counter, register your boat for another $317, and you’re in — and just how many fishermen have done so this season is entirely unknown.

“We have no clue whatsoever,” said Kelly.

Keith Fraser believes commercial halibut fishing must be entirely banned inside of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fraser also has spoken to Fish and Game about tightening sport fishing regulations and in particular would like to see the three-fish limit reduced to two. So would Smith. However, fishery biologist Travis Tanaka, a halibut specialist with Fish and Game, said any tight­ening of the sport fishing restrictions is unlikely for now, and Kelly said that the rod-and-reel commercial halibut fishery will remain open to all unless evidence of overharvesting becomes plainly apparent.

Smith worries that such a day could arrive soon, and, as he sees it, current regulations have only made plun­dering of the halibut fishery all too easy.

“These fishermen pay this little fee, and they have a license to kill.”

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