Tag and Release: Making Sport Fishing Competitions More Sustainable

Our columnist rides along on a halibut-tagging cruise in Alaska.
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(Photo: Eva Holland)

(Photo: Eva Holland)

About this time last year, I sailed out of a marina in Homer, Alaska, on board the Misty—a small charter fishing boat. Homer is a devastatingly scenic, tourist-friendly fishing town on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, about a four-hour drive south of Anchorage. From the Homer Spit, the narrow finger of land that juts out south of the main bulk of the town, you can see the Kenai Mountains on one side, and, on a clear day, the peaks of the Aleutian Range across Cook Inlet on the other.

We motored slowly out of the marina and into Kachemak Bay, past dozens of smaller charter boats, like ours, and then past larger commercial fishing boats with names like Persistence and Tradition. The biggest boats of all, tall and black-hulled, would be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Deadliest CatchTime Bandit and others, in their off-season harbor far from the Aleutian crab-fishing grounds. I was one of four people on board the Misty—the others were Captain Shane, at the wheel, and two local business owners, members of the Homer Chamber of Commerce. Shane gave us a rundown of the safety gear on board—fire extinguisher, life jackets, first aid kit, flares, flare gun, throw bag—while the sun crept over the mountains into the pastel sky, turning the water around us to caramel.

We were on a tagging cruise. Our mission for the day: to catch, tag, and release a couple of dozen smaller halibut in preparation for the upcoming Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby.

Somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska this summer, there’ll be a small halibut swimming around with a tag worth $50,000.

Now in its 30th year, the derby is Alaska’s longest-running halibut fishing competition. It runs from mid-May to mid-September, and entrants—who come from all over North America, most often hiring local charter fishing outfits to support their efforts—buy a $10 ticket for each day that they head out fishing. Without that ticket, purchased in advance, no fish an angler catches are eligible for prizes.

Traditionally, like most fishing derbies, Homer’s event has focused on catching the biggest fish, with the winner determined by a weigh-in. But while that’s still part of the contest, these days Homer is getting creative in an effort to avoid depleting the fishery. The modern derby tries to de-emphasize the hunt for the very biggest halibut—past winners have often caught fish that weigh in at well over 300 pounds—and to incentivize anglers to chase after smaller fish instead. And for good reason: The Pacific halibut fishery has seen several years of cuts to the available catch, thanks to a declining stock and a troubling trend of slow-growing, undersized fish. (This year, though, there are signs of a rebound.)

Hence the tagging. Each tagged halibut has a corresponding prize, ranging from $50 cash to a brand new Ford F-150. And the grand prize: Somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska this summer, there’ll be a small halibut swimming around with a tag worth $50,000. (This year, the derby has also introduced prizes of $500 and $1,000 for anglers who catch and release larger halibut.) But someone has to get the tags onto the fish. So each spring sees a series of tagging cruises organized: The local charter captains volunteer their time and boats, and Chamber of Commerce members come on board to help with the fishing—in addition to tagging and releasing fish, they’re also allowed to catch their day’s limit of halibut (two fish, one larger and one smaller) as a thank you for their effort. I’d picked up a fishing license at Safeway and managed to land a spot on Captain Shane’s excursion.

Sea otters lounged on the surface of the water and watched us pass as we went from one spot to another, following Shane’s instincts about where the fish were likely to be. Halibut are bottom-feeders, and—knowledge of where to go aside—catching them didn’t seem to be a fine art. We dropped weighted, baited hooks over the side and let them sink down fast until they bounced on the ocean bottom. Then we reeled them back up a ways, just a foot or two, and let them dangle. A halibut would nudge the hook a few times before taking a real bite—when you felt them clamp on, it was time to start reeling. The fish didn’t put up much fight on their way to the surface.

Whenever one of us pulled a fish up to the side of the boat, Shane took over: laying it flat, measuring its length to verify that it was under 29 inches long, the limit for tagged fish, and then quickly looping a little wire tag, like a twist tie, through its gills before easing the fish back into the water. Released, each one became a small swimming lottery ticket, and there was no guarantee they’d stick around to be caught and claimed: Halibut bearing Homer derby tags have been found as far south as California.

I suppose some anglers might object to the randomness of the tagging, preferring to try to demonstrate their skill and strength by catching the biggest fish they can. But I like the idea of a fish swimming around out there, nothing to brag about, 20 or 25 inches long, but carrying a $50,000 prize.

Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.

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