Washington’s Sport Halibut Fishing Dirty Secrets That Screw Sports Anglers

Yesterday and today 12 Treaty Tribes are long lining for halibut, just two days until Washington’s sport halibut season opener, on Thursday May 4. This happens every year, with commercial Treaty Tribes cleaning out “Their Share” as defined by the Boldt decision and Catch Share Plan.  Federal courts have ruled Tribes as “Co Managers” of the resource, but we sports anglers are not on equal ground. Here’s why.

Unlike our halibut season, which is set in advance, Tribes go through the Pacific Fisheries Management Council which in turn asks NOAA, another federal agency for a permit to go fishing for “their share” of halibut. Today’s 48 hour opening was approved last week.

Do you think it is by chance the Tribes plan their season days before our sport season?

Treaty Tribes also receive a “Ceremonial and Subsistence” year-round fishery of 29,600 pounds. This blog is not about Tribes vs. Sports anglers, it is about Washington fisheries managers math and how it affects sports anglers. The Treaty Tribes, by law are entitled to their share, just as we sports anglers are entitled to our share. Problem is, we don’t get our share because of inaccuracies in math and methods used by Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife fisheries managers.

Our sport halibut fishing quota is set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Our seasons/quotas are set at the North of Falcon meetings, based on the math metrics used by WDFW fisheries managers. This year recreational sports anglers have approximately 243,667 pounds of halibut quota. The WDFW halibut fisheries managers, headed by Michele Culver, Regional Director, Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife and Heather Reed, Coastal Marine Resources Policy Coordinator work with their employees who manage the math so to speak.

The WDFW uses several factors to determine how many days we get to fish for the sport fishing quota. When I asked about their metrics in calculating halibut quota at a halibut meeting last year WDFW reps told me they use several factors including number of halibut anglers, creel surveys which include “fish checkers” at boat ramps and marinas, catch record cards returned, trailer counts at launches and aerial surveys. When I claimed their math was grossly incompetent they noticeably got mad and said their metrics are “Peer Reviewed.”

Here’s how their metrics work.

Lets start with number of halibut anglers. According to WDFW there’s approximately 300,000 halibut anglers.


Because that’s how many catch record cards included in the saltwater fishing license. When anglers purchase their saltwater fishing license they are asked if they want a free catch record card for halibut. Nearly everyone says yes to this, it’s free after all. This is the reason many of us support a paid punch card, which reduces the number of halibut anglers on paper so to speak. Also note, less than 13,000 halibut catch record cards are returned each year. The state currently estimates if they institute a halibut catch record card, approximately 10,000 halibut catch record cards would be sold.


So somebody at the state has some idea of how many actual halibut anglers there are, but they can’t use that number simply because 300,000 anglers have a halibut punch card.

So how many actual halibut anglers are their in Washington State?

Certainly not 300,000. Change this number and our season changes for the better, giving us many more days of halibut fishing, without having to risk life and limb in rough weather. Longer seasons equal more opportunity and safety for recreational anglers. If one day is to windy, wait and go another day.

Aerial surveys. Let’s take a look at this brilliant method of counting halibut anglers to figure out our days on the water and how many halibut we catch. Let’s take Saturday, May 6th 2017 as an example. WDFW will have a plane in the air doing aerial angler surveys and will count sport fishing boats. On that day it is also opening day of shrimp season, day six of the lingcod season and opening weekend of boating season. Brilliant! (Aerial survey docs below)

Creel sampling/fish checkers

WDFW does their best, so they say, to physically see as many halibut brought in by anglers. But they can’t be everywhere, and project their catch rates of “average” catches as seen by fish checkers against those not seen in person. In other words, they take aerial survey data combined with fish checker data and multiply numbers of boats with an average number of anglers aboard with an average of halibut as seen in person by fish checkers. As a simple example, seven halibut seen at one boat launch can be multiplied into a formula for unseen boats, unseen anglers and unseen halibut. Those seven halibut might end up being 14, or 21 or 28 or who knows how many.  Check out the PDF document at the end of this blog to see how these numbers magically multiply.

Is this accurate?

No, but as they say, their numbers and halibut catch metrics are “Peer Reviewed.”

Also note, when a sport boat returns to the dock for any reason, including using the restroom, and leaves the dock again it becomes a new trip that adds to the total. Or a boat might return to the dock and go lingcod fishing, shrimping or just enjoying a day on the water. This would also could be counted as another halibut fishing trip.

How many boats get counted twice?

Here’s the data, from years past, according to WDFW. As you can see, their data is grossly wrong or we as anglers developed a magic halibut lure to make us catch vast numbers of halibut quickly, with shortened seasons. Of course WDFW managers will claim we have vast number of halibut anglers on the water that catch vast numbers of halibut. This is simply not true. We could prove this if the WDFW Commission or State Legislators create a catch record card with a $10 fee, refundable upon returning the card, just like the crab catch record card. This would prove the WDFW numbers to be grossly over stated.

Halibut catch record cards have averaged about 300,000 per year

Catch rate (fish/day) increasing as days on the water are cut

Year        Days        Fish (est. harvest)    Catch/Day

2016        8        5337            667

2015        11        5291            481

2014        12        6241            416

2010        30        3556            118

2008        64        3909            61

And another dirty secret that takes quota from sports halibut anglers is the sablefish by-catch give away. In 2016 sports halibut anglers lost 49,686 lbs to the sablefish fleet (total for all WA waters that would have been divided up between the four halibut management zones) had we received our full share of halibut.

Oregon and California saw an increase in their recreational fleet share. Also note, California has a quota of 34,580 pounds. They have four halibut openers that ran from May 1-June 15, July 1-15, August 1-15, and September 1-October 31, or until the quota is projected to have been taken, whichever is earlier. Wow, what a season for so little quota. I’m wondering what method California uses to figure out catch rates — it certainly is not a WDFW math.

In 2017 the Total Allowable Catch for California, Oregon and Washington went to 1.33 million pounds, of which Washington sports halibut anglers will lose 70,000 pounds of their allowable catch to the Washington ocean sablefish fleet as by-catch. This year we will get an additional 23,552 pounds but should get back the 70,000 pounds that WDFW donated away to the commercial sablefish fishery.

Ocean recreational halibut fishing days on the water is also severely restricted. They are averaging 3 to 4 days of fishing. Their data is not included in this summary.

Last Year’s Halibut Metrics

011617 2016 halibut catch est 2-1

About John L. Beath

John Beath is a writer, photographer, videographer, blogger, tackle manufacturer & Captain at Whaler's Cove Lodge in Southeast Alaska. He is also owner of www.halibut.net and host at Lets Talk Outdoors @ www.youtube.com/jbeath
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