Pacific Halibut

Well, Alaska’s IFQ halibut and black cod fisheries opened March 1 and all the longliners that were tied up at the dock in Auke Bay are out fishing, yeah!! I really enjoyed the time I spent longlining. It’s a fishery that has changed very little in hundreds of years. Just brutally hard work over long hours with you, the boat, the ocean, the grounds and your shipmates. Traditionally, Alaska’s longline fisheries were plied by beautiful wooden North Sea longline schooners. You still see a few traditional longline schooners around, but at least in Southeast Alaska, the fishery these days is conducted more by a diversified fleet which also participates in a variety of other fisheries, trolling or seining for salmon, or fishing Dungeness, Tanner or king crab or shrimp. I participated pre-IFQ days in both halibut and black cod fisheries and declined IFQ permits for these fisheries when they were issued as I decided it would be a conflict with my job as a State fisheries biologist. One trip specifically is warm in my memory banks.
We were chugging slowly up Glacier Bay in our dinghy old troller, the F/V Delores, enroute to a halibut derby opening, deck stacked with metal tubs of longline gear painstakingly baited with herring and squid in Elfin Cove over the previous several days. We were excited to try out a new ground we’d scouted the previous year and Tom was strategizing about how to wrest the longline set from the only other boat in the area. The Ocean Gold, a gillnetter skippered by an ornery old cogger with snap-on gear. Tom had just taken the longline drum off the Delores and fitted her with a chute for setting tub gear, so we were strategically well-situated to command more than perhaps was our fair share of the grounds. Arriving on the grounds well ahead of the noon opening, we began running up and down the 200-fathom isobath outside and south of Tidal Inlet, planning the set and making sure we understood the bathymetry. Nautical charts, while useful, are data sparse. The grounds were an area where a steep (glacially-scoured) side-wall met a flat (glacial outwash sediment) bottom at a depth of about 200 fathoms (1 fathom = 6 ft). When the 24-hr fishery opened at the stroke of noon, we began setting gear just outside Tidal Inlet, heading south. The tub gear went out much more quickly than the old snap-on gear and we were able to set at a speed of about 4 knots (nautical miles per hour), much more rapidly than before. With about 2/3 of our gear out we got a call on the marine VHF from the Ocean Gold, setting north he had just noticed us hoovering up ‘his’ ground and was spitting mad. Tom took the call, and after some verbal posturing the two skippers figured out how to avoid setting gear on top of each other and we finished our set. And it was worth fighting over, with huge 100+ lb halibut dripping off the ground line like grapes on every other hook, we soon filled our hold and had to put some fish below in the companionway.
Some years later, I was at a dead end in my State fisheries job, so I went to work for the Park Service in Glacier Bay as a fisheries biologist on a halibut tagging and tracking project. Despite my professional qualifications, it was my commercial fishing experience that got me that job. Federal legislation was set to close the Bay to commercial fishing and researchers there wanted to study halibut movement to understand if a closure of that size would be likely to affect the local halibut population. We tagged halibut by implanting sonic tags and checked up on their movements by running around in a boat with a hydrophone to relocate them several times a week. It was really interesting to look at halibut distribution on an individual basis. The jist was that smaller halibut moved extensively while the larger ones exhibited a strong site fidelity, leaving the Bay (probably to spawn) in late summer, and returning to the same location the following year. Since commercial fishing in Glacier Bay was replaced by sport fishing which is apparently a more ‘park-appropriate’ activity, I don’t imagine there was much impact of the closure on the halibut population size, but I am curious.
It’s not too fancy, but here is one of my favorite halibut recipes!

Mustard Halibut Almandine
Tools:
Baking dish

Ingredients:
2-lb skinless halibut filet
⅓ c melted butter
⅓ c mustard
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 c plain yogurt
1 c panko bread crumbs
1 c slivered almonds

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 400° F.
Mix melted butter with mustard.
Set halibut filet in baking dish, season both sides with salt and pepper and brush with melted butter/mustard mixture.
Bake uncovered for 15 minutes until fish just begins to flake.
Mix yogurt with slivered almonds.
Remove fish from oven and slather with yogurt/almond mixture.
Return to oven for 5 minutes.
Remove fish from oven and sprinkle with panko bread crumbs.
Broil for 5 minutes until panko are golden brown.