Halibut Boom In Recent Decades Is Result Of Efforts By Anglers

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Anglers have experienced excellent fishing this season for the prized California halibut in San Francisco Bay, but few know the hard work by fishing groups that it took over 25 years ago to produce the quality fishery we’re now enjoying.

Halibut anglers continue to land around a fish per rod on live bait drifting adventures in San Francisco Bay. Some days produce even better scores on legal-sized halibut. In addition to the keeper fish, anglers are also releasing big numbers of fish under the 22-inch legal size limit.

“We’re fishing all over the bay – the fish are scattered,” said James Smith, Captain of the California Dawn in Berkeley. “We’re catching fish at the Berkeley Flats, Angel Island, Paradise Cay and in the south bay. In addition to the fish we’re keeping, we’re also releasing a lot of fish under the legal size of 22 inches, anywhere from 40 to 150 on the typical trip.”

The most recent trip by the California Dawn yielded 16 halibut to 35 pounds and 13 striped bass to 12 pounds for 23 anglers. The latest half-day trip by the Bass Tub, berthed at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, produced 10 halibut for 10 anglers, according to Captain Erik Anfinson.

Captain Steve Mitchell of Hook’d Up Sport Fishing out of Berkeley reported a great birthday celebration for 11 year-old Maddie Ocheltree of Yuba City aboard his boat on June 10, when Maddie landed a limit of halibut weighing 30, 16, and 10 pounds. The total count for the day was 9 halibut and two striped bass for 6 anglers.

But the fishing wasn’t always as good as it is now. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, halibut fishing inside the bay was in rapid decline, the result of heavy commercial fishing pressure and the dumping of dredge spoils by the Army Corps of Engineers into San Francisco Bay.

Commercial fishermen using otter trawls were taking most of the halibut outside of the Golden Gate before they could even make it into the bay to spawn. Attempts by a coalition of recreational anglers and small boat hook-and-line commercial halibut fishermen to pressure the Fish and Game Commission stop the destruction of the halibut fishery by a few greedy folks reached deaf ears.

Finally, Senator Henry Mello, known as “Hank the Tank” among his colleagues for his no-nonsense attitude towards getting things done in the Legislature, stepped up and sponsored legislation to stop the trawlers from devastating the halibut population in near shore waters outside of the Golden Gate.

The legislation went into effect in 1993 and San Francisco Bay saw an immediate rebound in the fishery. However, as the fishery became increasingly popular among recreational anglers, the board of United Anglers of California in 1995 discussed reducing the halibut bag limit to three fish.

I wrote an article about the proposal and Mello jumped on board, calling me on the phone to tell me he supported it. As it worked out, United Anglers decided to push the proposal through the Fish and Game Commission. After a large turn out at a Commission meeting by recreational anglers supporting the new limits, the limit in the bay was reduced to three.

Another big factor in the revival of the halibut fishery in San Francisco Bay was the successful unified effort between recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and grassroots environmentalists to limit the dumping of dredge spoils in San Francisco Bay by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This dredge spoil dumping was resulting in muddy conditions in the central bay and greatly hurting fishing for halibut, striped bass and other species. The sediment stirred up by Army Corps operations polluted the water, driving halibut, striped bass, sharks and other species from the bay and harming forage species including anchovies, sardines and herring.

United Anglers of California and local charter boat skippers led the charge in this campaign. The legendary Cliff Anfinson, Erik Anfinson’s dad, was one of the most vocal opponents of the dredge spoils dumping.

In 1988, we held a historic “boat in” with dozens of boats on San Francisco Bay forming a flotilla to protest the dumping. Anglers went to meeting after meeting and hearing after hearing, eventually forcing the Army Corps to change their destructive practices.

Since these successful efforts led by anglers, the halibut fishery has bounced up and down, a result of the cyclical nature of halibut populations, combined with commercial and recreational fishing pressure.

Many believe that the closure of the ocean salmon fishery from 2008 to 2010 put too much fishing pressure on halibut, resulting in a few relatively lean years. Many salmon charter and commercial fishermen ended up fishing for halibut in the bay as a result of the closure.

But never did the fishery decline to the level it was in the mid-1980s through 1992 when halibut became few and far between in the bay catches.

To keep the halibut population healthy, two things are necessary:

First, be very careful when releasing shaker (undersized) halibut. Make sure you handle them as little as possible and release them quickly back into the bay.

Second, be vocal against Governor Jerry Brown’s campaign to build the Delta Tunnels. The tunnels will not only devastate salmon and anadromous fish species, but halibut and other species that need a clean and healthy San Francisco Bay to survive.

Cal Kellogg, Fish Sniffer Editor, also suggests reducing the halibut limit to two fish, including one fish over 22 inches and one fish over 26 inches, to help preserve the halibut fishery.

“Next to salmon, halibut is the most exciting saltwater fishery in the San Francisco Bay area,” Kellogg noted.

About California Halibut: These sharp-toothed nearshore-dwelling flatfish   range from Magdalena Bay, Baja California north to the Quillayute River in Washington, but are most abundant from central California to Baja California. Adults migrate from the continental shelf into shallow coastal waters and bays before spawning, usually from February through September.

There are good populations of California halibut in Monterey Bay and Humboldt Bay that provide great fishing for boaters at times. But nowhere in its range is the fishing for this species more popular than in San Francisco Bay.

Halibut eggs are pelagic (free floating). Larvae develop with one eye on each side of the head. As California halibut mature and reach the post-larval stage (20-29 days), one eye migrates to the other side so that both eyes are on the same side. California halibut may be right- or left-eyed.