Pacific halibut are a highly sought for food. The flesh is white with a mild flavor, and is high in protein, minerals, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Halibut are taken in subsistence, commercial, and recreational fisheries.
Halibut have been harvested for centuries by the indigenous coastal peoples of Southeast, Southcentral, and Western Alaska. Long ago, hooks were made of wood or bone, and often ornately carved with spirit figures to attract halibut. Lines were made of twisted fibers of cedar, animal sinew, or kelp. Halibut meat was preserved by drying or smoking.
Despite a long history of harvest, federal halibut fishing regulations did not officially recognize and authorize the subsistence fishery until 2003. Members of federally recognized tribes as well as residents of designated rural areas and communities are now eligible to obtain a Subsistence Halibut Registration Certificate (SHARC) in order to participate in this fishery. Special permits for community harvest, ceremonial, and educational purposes also are available to qualified Alaska communities and Alaska Native Tribes.
Subsistence harvest has been estimated in recent years using a survey of SHARC holders. The statewide subsistence harvest in recent years has averaged around 1 million pounds annually, with most of the harvest coming from Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
The commercial longline fishery began in 1888 off the southern end of Vancouver Island, along the Canadian coast, and in Southeast Alaska. Fishing was from dories that delivered to larger sailing ships. The fishery rapidly expanded, reaching waters of the central and western Gulf of Alaska by about 1920. Dory fishing all but ended by the early 1930s. Halibut are now taken commercially throughout their range, by a variety of catcher vessels. Hook and line is the only legal gear for the directed fishery, and bycatch on other gears may not be retained.
The commercial longline fishery accounts for the majority of removals. Annual commercial catches coastwide rose to a peak of 69 million pounds in 1915, fell to 44 million pounds in 1931, increased to a second peak of over 70 million pounds in 1962, and then dropped to the historical low of around 21 million pounds during the 1970s. Commercial harvest then rose steadily and peaked at over 70 million pounds in the late 1980s, late 1990s, and early 2000s, and has declined since then.
The commercial fishery has been managed under an Individual Fishery Quota (IFQ) system since 1995. The IFQ system was put into place to end the “race for fish” caused by too many boats fishing during restricted seasons of a few days. The IFQ system has resulted in longer seasons, improved vessel safety, and fresh halibut being available about 8 months per year.
Before 1973, sport halibut fishing was legal only during the commercial halibut season. Sport fishing during the closed season was common but the regulations were not enforced because the fishery was small. With growth in the sport fishery, the International Pacific Halibut Commission officially recognized the sport fishery and established regulations in 1973. In 1975, the sport fishery in Alaska was estimated to have taken 10,000 pounds of halibut. Sport harvest in Alaska steadily increased after that, reaching over 8 million pounds by the mid-2000s. The vast majority of the coastwide sport harvest is taken in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
Many sport halibut anglers do not own a seaworthy boat and must fish using a charter service. The charter industry in Alaska has grown along with tourism, catering to residents and nonresidents alike. Charter boats are available at all major ports, and the charter fishery now accounts for about 60–70% of the total Alaska sport harvest. The vast majority of charter clients fishing in Southeast Alaska are non-residents, while resident and non-resident anglers commonly use charter boats in the more heavily populated Southcentral region.