Halibut fishery kicks off in Bristol Bay

May 22, 2017

Federal managers are giving Bristol Bay longliners a small boost in their halibut quota this season, and state managers are now allowing the sale of cod, too. 

F/V Eagle's catch sold at Dillingham Harbor Thursday.
Credit KDLG

Last week the F/V Eagle Two was sitting alone in the Dillingham harbor, getting ready to fish halibut. The harbor has not been dredged yet, and the floats and arms are not installed for ease of use. Halibut fishing normally happens after Togiak herring, but about a month before any salmon openers in the Bay.

“We’re always anxious to get started, but we’re waiting on ice,” said skipper William Johnson, whose crew was preparing the vessel for departure to the far side of the Nushagak Peninsula. “Heading west to go get bait and do a little fishing out there, and then come back and then finish out the season down here,” said Johnson. He noted they pack extra fuel for the long distance trip out in the quiet Bay.

Longliners like Johnson—who live in a Western Alaskan community designated as part of the 4-E group—are fishing a halibut quota of 58,800 pounds. This is a more than one thousand pound increase from last season.

If that quota is met, the fishermen could get an additional 20,000 pounds to go after, said BBEDC regional fisheries director Gary Cline.

“If we come to the point as we did last year, where our local fleet caught our 4-E quota, we have the ability to roll over the quota we have in area 4-D, which is further off-shore in the Bering Sea—which is what we did last year, and we ended up catching roughly 77 thousand pounds,” said Cline.

An interesting change this season is that the 4-E longliners are also permitted to sell cod—up to one-fifth the weight of halibut on board. The emergency order from Alaska Department of Fish and Game permitting the commercial cod fishery comes after several years of the halibut fleet reporting a large increase in the cod catch.

Cline says the increased harvest and participation from the 4E group has helped spotlight the needs of local communities to state and federal managers. These small changes in fishing regulations provide extra economic opportunity in the region.

“Our halibut fishery may seem small, when comparing it to the other halibut fisheries throughout the state of Alaska. However, I feel it goes a long way for our residents that live in our surrounding communities that may not have a lot of job opportunities,” said Cline.

He expects 25 boats to fish the quota this year—five more than last season.

F/V Eagle crewmember Leroy Strayley ices down the catch.
Credit KDLG

When the first vessel came back into Dillingham with fresh catch, eager customers lined up to buy it. Leroy Straley is a crewmember on the F/V Eagle, fishing his first halibut season after many years of gillnetting salmon in Bristol Bay.  

“It is way more fun than I thought it was going to be,” he said, as they offloaded and iced their catch. “I mean, it’s just exciting when that halibut comes up off the longline, and it breaks the water, and you see how big that fish is. It’s sometimes a little challenging to pull the bigger fish aboard, but we didn’t miss one our first trip, so that’s exciting,” said Straley.

Some halibut is processed at the two buyers near Togiak. For some of the Dillingham-based boats, their best market is to sell dockside. More than a dozen customers waited in line in the rain Thursday for the 22 halibut the Eagle brought in to sell at $8 per pound, as well as the cod they can now sell, too.

It didn’t take the captain and crew long to sell their catch, and they were ready to head back out on the next tide.