When the salmon bite turns off, local anglers have traditionally turned to halibut and striped bass fishing to keep their rods bent. The 2008 and 2009 seasons were prime examples — -years when the salmon fishing was poor, restricted or entirely closed due to dangerously low stocks (which have since bounced back). Those two summers, hundreds of boats that otherwise might have targeted salmon instead drifted live baits over the sandy flats of the Bay and along the coastal beaches. Tens of thousands of halibut were caught each of those summers inside the Bay, along with boatloads of striped bass.
But this year, with the fast salmon bite of July having all but ebbed away, fishermen looking for an alternative target have found very few halibut along the Tiburon Peninsula shoreline, at Crissy Field, on the Berkeley Flats and at Tomales Bay.
Why? Jim Cox, captain of the Touch of Gray party fishing boat in San Rafael, thinks the fishing pressure in 2008 and 2009 took too many breeding-age halibut from the population.
“I think we’re seeing the results of two years of heavy pressure on the halibut, from the years when there were no salmon,” Cox said.
Keith Fraser, owner of Loch Lomond Bait Shop, thinks the same.
“The demise of the halibut fishery began in 2008 and 2009, when all the boats that usually fished for salmon turned to halibut,” he said.
But officials with the Fish and Game Department don’t believe fishing pressure plays a significant role in halibut abundance. Travis Tanaka, an environmental scientist with the department, says that water temperature, food supply and other environmental factors are the driving forces in halibut numbers. Tanaka says that halibut in California have especially successful spawning events during El Nino years, when upwelling all but stops and the coastal waters grow warm in the summer sun. It takes about four years for a larval halibut to reach 22 inches, and Tanaka notes that 2004 was a strong El Nino year.
“And so we had a big year class of fish come through four years later, and it happened to come through in the seasons when salmon fishing wasn’t happening,” he said.
Tanaka says that the slow Bay halibut fishing this summer is probably a product of low reproductive success in recent years.
Anyway, Fish and Game records indicate that 2008 and 2009 were not the explosive years for halibut fishing as they locally seemed. In 2002, sport anglers fishing north of Point Conception caught roughly 125,000 halibut. In 1995, they reported about a quarter million. But in 2008, sport fishermen caught about 55,000 halibut in the northern half of the state, and 43,000 the next year. Much of the action was concentrated in San Francisco Bay. (Commercial landings are more difficult to interpret, with the only records of each season being the catch in kilograms.)
In Fraser’s mind, there is “absolutely no doubt” that fishing pressure has impacted California’s halibut population.
“The fishery is now on life support, and the Department of Fish and Game hasn’t done a thing to help it,” he said. Fraser would like to see the three-fish daily bag limit on halibut reduced to two and commercial halibut fishermen, who may use multiple fishing rods and keep all the fish they can catch, banned from fishing in the Bay.
This article originally appeared in the Marin Independent Journal.