Outdoors: The connection between halibut fishing, Hood Canal Bridge replacement

SOMETIMES, EVEN WHEN fishing is good, it’s bad.

Case in point:

Last spring’s recreational halibut fishery in Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca was so productive the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is recommending a scaled back season to the International Pacific Halibut Commission this year.

All told, anglers might end up with three fewer weeks of halibut fishing in Marine Area 6 (eastern Strait) and Area 9 (Admiralty Inlet) in the spring.

That’s due to an estimated 40 percent harvest overage ¬­during the 2008 season combined with a slight decrease in the 2009 quota prescribed by the halibut commission, according to Heather Reed, the state’s coastal marine resources policy coordinator.

The proposed dates for this year’s season would run from April 23 through June 5, Thursdays through Mondays only.

That would eliminate two weeks in April and one in June from last year’s fishery (April 10-June 13 on Thursdays through Mondays).

“Our primary concern is to make sure we don’t go over the quota again,” Reed said.

“Based with, one, a smaller quota than last year, and two, fewer number of fishing days in 2009 based on the successful 2008 season, we had to reduce the number of days.”

Bridge closure

Ah, but there is a catch . . . and it doesn’t involve a spreader bar.

As some charter boat captains point out, the Hood Canal Bridge will be closed for replacement of its eastern half during much of the proposed season.

The project is expected to shut the major artery to the North Olympic Peninsula for six weeks, from May 1 to June 12.

Randy Jones, the owner-operator of Venture Charters, runs halibut fishing trips out of John Wayne Marina each spring.

He believes the bridge closure will greatly reduce effort from sport anglers who live outside Jefferson and Clallam counties, — including a number of his clients already feeling the pinch in a down economy.

And since April is the only month during the season when the bridge will be open, making larger cuts to the front end of the season seems unnecessary.

“Just by that attrition alone, there’s going to be less fish caught” because of the closure, Jones said.

“Last year was a banner year like we’ve never seen before.

“There’s no way in hell that last year was not a whole lot better [than normal].

“At least make [the season] April 15 to June 1.

“Everybody would have at least two weeks of fishing in the Strait.

“Everybody is going to get some business, recoup some of the loss that they are going to have with the bridge closure.”

The interests Jones refers to include not only his, but marinas along the Strait, bait shops and a host of other businesses that receive revenue from visiting out-of-town anglers.

Other areas

Establishments in and around Area 3 (LaPush) and Area 4 (Neah Bay) — which will see their halibut quotas decreased slightly — could be affected, too.

But those areas’ popular halibut fisheries don’t traditionally open until May anyway.

The absence of car ferries during the bridge closure means many out-of-the-area anglers from off the Peninsula will have to haul their boats up U.S. Highway 101 in order to fish the Strait.

Either that, or take their boats on a long odyssey up Puget Sound.

Unfortunately, says Reed, Fish and Wildlife couldn’t factor the bridge closure into its 2009 season projections.

“There is really no way to estimate what effect the bridge closure is going to have on the catch results,” she said. “While there could be less effort, we don’t know that for sure.

“It’s just an uncertainty that would be very risky to suggest to the [International Pacific Halibut Commission].”

“We’re trying to balance a whole bunch of different people’s ideas about when the season can be.

“Not everybody is going to be impacted by the Hood Canal Bridge closure.

“There are people that are going to drive around.

“It’s unfortunate, but I’d imagine there will be different user groups that are going to be impacted.”

Fishing seasons are based on a stock assessment and quotas established for the Pacific coast by the halibut commission.

Season dates are submitted by each state to the commission, which makes the final approval.

This year’s quota for Washington, Oregon and California is 950,000 pounds compared to the 1.2 million-pound quota in 2008.

“The biggest question we have to provide to the IPHC is whether we can stay within the quota,” Reed said.

Catch estimates

For that reason, Reed said Fish and Wildlife officials only factored in data they felt they could quantify ¬­– historical catch estimates and the seasonal quota.

The state estimated that Puget Sound anglers brought in 83,000 pounds during the 2008 season, which was 23,646 pounds over last year’s quota (59,354).

Adding in the lower 2009 quota (57,393 pounds) delivered by the halibut commission in January, the decision to make cuts the season was made.

Of course, some people aren’t real big fans of those numbers, which are based on a composite of angler catch record cards, telephone surveys, and interview information collected by state samplers at various boat launches.

Jones calls them “pie in the sky numbers.”

I suppose there is some good news, albeit a bit selfish, out of the whole deal:

Peninsula anglers will likely have more of the water to themselves this May and June.

Let’s just hope that despite the recession they have the money to go out.

_____

Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at matt.schubert@peninsuladailynews.com.

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