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Halibut Seem Too Pricy? Try Fishing It Yourself

I did this May. One humbling, bloody week later, I know what it takes to get the pretentious bottom-dweller to plate.

By Larry Pynn 14 Dec 2018 | Hakai Magazine

Larry Pynn is a veteran environmental journalist who has received some 30 awards for his newspaper and magazine writing, including eight Jack Webster Awards. This article first appeared on Hakai Magazine.

[Editor’s note: This article, first published by the inestimable Hakai Magazine, is also available in audio format. Listen now, download, or subscribe to “Hakai Magazine Audio Edition” through your favorite podcast app.]

Dishes fly across the galley. Water gushes through the scuppers and onto the deck. Five crew members on the 17.5-metre commercial halibut boat Borealis I walk like drunkards, holding onto anything stable. “We’re going to get bounced around a bit,” Dave Boyes, the boat’s captain and owner, deadpans.

My day started at first light, about six hours ago, watching the crew let out 2,200 galvanized circle hooks laced with chunks of pollock, squid, and pink salmon to soak across 13 kilometres of ocean bottom. Then, we ate breakfast and rested in cramped, cluttered bunks while the boat bounced on 1.5-meter waves and — below, in the cold unseen depths — the hooks sunk deep into the lips of the predatory halibut.

Now, the crew readies for battle, cinching rubber rain gear and running crude gutting knives across electric sharpeners — a portent of the bloodshed to come. When Boyes toots the boat’s horn, it’s game on.

My love of halibut got me here — in Hecate Strait, off northern British Columbia — as did my disdain for the price. Salmon are held up as the iconic symbol of the Pacific Northwest, but the way I see it, halibut is king, offering superior flavor and texture. When I can afford it, I serve the white fish baked with a glaze of butter, mayonnaise, and whole grain Dijon mustard.

During a summer visit to my local fish shop — Mad Dog Crabs in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island — fresh halibut fillets sold for CAN $6.38 per 100 grams, compared with $5.28 for sablefish and $3.74 for sockeye salmon. “It’s the prime rib of the sea,” explained fishmonger Scott Mahon, who fished commercially for over 20 years. “Better taste, better quality, and better shelf life.” Unlike the farmed salmon industry, halibut aquaculture remains a relatively nascent enterprise and does not offer a less-expensive alternative to consumers.

Still, I cannot help but wonder why a wild, bottom-dwelling fish costs so much. To find out, I am hitching a ride with Boyes for a week on his first fishing trip of the year, in May, gaining visceral insight into what it takes to put a pretentious little portion of halibut on my plate.

On board the boat, I stay well away from the hydraulically powered drum as the first longline is hauled aboard. Minutes go by with only empty hooks returned. “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching,” jokes the burly first mate and engineer, Angus Grout.

The first of about 200 halibut to be caught this day approaches the surface, flashing its white belly and mottled brownish-green back. It’s an average-sized fish weighing about 11 kilograms and measuring about one metre from jaw to tail.

As more fish writhe to the surface, Boyes steers the boat from the deck while simultaneously detaching the hook assemblies and counting each halibut. Grout gaffs the catch and slings it into a plastic tote where it is bonked senseless with a wooden club. Moving down the line, the fish lands with a thud on the gutting table, where other crew members remove the gills and guts. They reach into the cavity and tear out the gonads — “pulling the nuts” as it’s called — somewhat reminiscent of my last digital rectal exam. The fish curl up and give final silent gasps while their powerful tails thump, thump, thump the table in futile resistance.

There was a time not long ago when the commercial halibut fishery proved deadly for man and fish — a free-for-all in which licensed fishers competed to maximize their catches as fast as they could, often in bad weather and with disastrous results. On April 25, 1985, 18 men were rescued from the ocean or the decks of sinking boats and three died when a fierce storm hit the halibut fleet in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, not far from where we are fishing today. “It was a dumb way to fish, and dangerous,” Boyes recalls.

The crew of the Borealis I haul in longlines for halibut. Video by Larry Pynn.

The Canadian government took action to calm the frenzy and protect the halibut by introducing a quota system in 1991 that allocated fishing opportunities to licensed halibut fishers based on catch history and vessel size.

It amounts to a very private club fishing a public resource.

The old management system set up a feast-or-famine situation for halibut availability. Openings as short as a few days resulted in the fleet’s halibut catch being unloaded all at once. Processors scrambled to find freezer space, while quality suffered and prices dropped. Under the new quota system, fishers secure higher prices for their catch by serving the fresh fish market over a longer fishing season, from March to November. And this affects the price paid by consumers.

“The year after the quota system came into effect, prices doubled,” Boyes says. “There was a market waiting. Halibut is very desirable, and people are willing to pay a lot of money for it.”

But as in any free-market economy, prices cycle. “Halibut is a commodity,” says Boyes, “just like gold and lumber.” Over the past couple of years, restaurants and retail fish shops have started to resist the high cost of halibut — and the wholesale price declined by about $2 per 0.45 kilogram.

Boyes has seen it all during his 42 years on the seas. He is a worldly, unemotional man who speaks softly and deliberately, and wears a tarred canvas sou’wester his mother gave him in the 1970s. He uses three different electronic navigational programs in the wheelhouse but still struggles to make catch notations on a new tablet instead of paper. “I guess it’s time for me to enter the modern age,” he says.

The crew is a cohesive, happy unit, with a sense of humour and strong work ethic, toiling from dawn to dusk without complaint. They are the antithesis of the sinister image of a big corporate fishing company and are all relatives or longtime friends, mostly living in the Comox Valley of Vancouver Island.

Boyes’s daughter, Tiare, has been helping out on her dad’s boat for 17 years, since she was 12. She wasn’t always proud to say she fished, but the seasonal gig put her through university. “When I was a kid, I worried about all the fish I was killing,” she confides. “So I returned their hearts to the ocean.”

There is little time for sentimentality on the Borealis I. Gutted fish fly down the boat’s hold to be kept fresh on ice. Just as chickens can run around with their heads chopped off, nerve cells in the halibut allow some to quiver hauntingly. As the day progresses, a slippery, shifting mass of gooey entrails covers the deck. Movie directors Quentin Tarantino and the late Sam Peckinpah would appreciate the gore. Despite her conflict over the carnage, Tiare has a macabre side, which she showed in a Christmas gift to the crew — a custom jigsaw puzzle made from an image of fish guts. “It was pretty challenging,” Boyes says.

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Dave Boyes and his daughter, Tiare, bait halibut hooks while anchored off southeastern Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. Photo by Larry Pynn.

Yesterday, under better ocean conditions, I stood a good metre away from the action, and the flying blood still found me, splattering onto my clothing, notebook, and camera. One drop even got up my nostril — a rare, reverse nosebleed.

Still, I rolled up my sleeves and waded in, trying my hand at gutting and helping transfer the halibut down the line. I even steeled myself and took a turn at chasing the writhing fish around the tote to knock them senseless. It’s honest work, but after half an hour, I turned squeamish. I am prepared to kill what I catch, but the assembly line slaughter for the masses is more difficult to accept.

Baiting the hooks is more my style.

We’ve been hauling in line for about four hours when the crew erupts with unbridled whoops and hollers as a monster halibut, weighing close to 90 kilograms — a cool $1,300 on the hook — comes aboard. Grout is the strongest crewmember and tries in vain to hoist it onto the gutting table alone. “That’s the first time I’ve seen him unable to lift a fish,” says deckhand Pete Wyness, who’s been fishing alongside Boyes since 1978. Compared with an average 11-kilogram halibut in today’s fishery, the largest on record — always females — have been known to reach more than 200 kilograms and 55 years.

Tiare’s conflict with the activity that’s been such a big part of her life hasn’t waned. She laments the loss of this huge spawner in its prime and, once it’s off the hook and on the gutting table, gently caresses its belly while whispering her condolences. “You know what it’s saying back?” asks the mischievous Wyness. “Fuck you!”

They’re the world’s largest flatfish, but Pacific halibut start their lives as minute larvae — swimming upright, like other fish, with one eye on each side of their heads. But at about 2.5 centimetres in length, the left eye moves to the right side, and at the age of six months, halibut settle onto the seafloor in sandy coastal areas from California to Alaska and west to Japan.

As the fish continue to grow and gain in commercial value, they fall under one of the most tightly controlled fisheries in the world, designed to ensure long-term sustainability of the valuable stocks. The position of the Borealis I, like all boats in the halibut fleet, is automatically tracked to help ensure it does not stray into closed fishing areas. That GPS information, along with Boyes’s fish count data, is handed over to a contracted company, Archipelago Marine Research, at trip’s end. Two onboard video cameras are trained on the incoming catch to keep the crew honest. “Every fish gets its picture taken,” Wyness confirms.

Archipelago Marine Research reviews 10 per cent of the video, and if the numbers don’t match the boat’s log, the owner bears the cost of Archipelago reviewing the other 90 per cent. When the Borealis I returns to Port Hardy, the first port on northern Vancouver Island, an observer will be waiting to weigh and count the catch as it is offloaded. Each halibut leaving the dock also has a plastic tag with a serial number inserted into the tail to trace its origin and assure buyers that the fish came from a well-regulated fishery.

Management actions aren’t limited to fish. The crew is required to deploy tori lines, which consist of a towed buoy with streamers on either side of the longline. The buoys discourage diving birds, such as black-footed albatrosses, from trying to steal bait from the descending gear. The halibut fishery is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council and receives a thumbs up from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

After just a few days on board, I appreciate that there is much to the fishery that goes unnoticed to consumers and that it takes an intense level of scrutiny to ensure halibut stocks remain healthy over the long-term.

In 2017, Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported 68 potential violations involving the commercial halibut fleet off the BC coast, including use of illegal gear, possession of prohibited species, and fishing in closed areas. The biggest penalty involved a $45,000 fine for fishing in a marine protected area.

About 150 boats participated in Canada’s Pacific longline halibut fishery in 2018, although halibut can also be retained as by-catch in other fisheries, including rockfish and lingcod. The fleet, through its quota, is accountable for mortalities of all species caught while fishing for halibut and pays for annual inshore rockfish surveys as a way of updating stock assessments.

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The crew of the Borealis I — Kyla Savage, Pete Wyness, and Tiare Boyes — remove the guts, gills, and gonads from freshly caught halibut. Photo by Larry Pynn.

The management system puts pressure on fishers to limit their by-catch. “You don’t just go fishing,” Boyes says. “You can get into big trouble.” Boyes typically catches 17 species; he targets halibut and the other 16 species are allowed by-catch quota. If Boyes exceeds his by-catch quota, he must “beg, borrow, or steal” available quota from other fishers or risk being shut down.

Halibut fishing management requires that individuals 81 centimetres and smaller be tossed back into the ocean. The fleet also mainly uses #16 circle hooks, which tend to catch the larger, more valuable fish. “It’s a little bit like managing trees,” explains scientist Ian Stewart with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), based in Seattle, Washington. “You need to let them grow when they’re small, when the growth rate is fast.” There have been discussions on a maximum size limit, but there are concerns over how many big halibut would die once tossed back, adding to the portion of the fleet’s overall catch assessed as mortality.

Even with such tight regulations and oversight, halibut stocks — including the size of individuals, overall numbers, and distribution — have fluctuated widely over the past century. In the late 1970s, halibut were much larger: a 12-year-old female, for example, weighed about 22 kilograms, compared with just over nine kilograms today. Various factors could be at play, including competition for food with other species and ocean changes that affect prey quality and availability. “Fishing may have a role to play, but it’s certainly not the whole story,” Stewart says.

The halibut population on the west coast is also in a period of lower recruitment, with fewer young fish entering the population, and that could soon result in reduced allowable catches — and, potentially, even higher prices.

The total 2017 halibut catch — commercial, Indigenous subsistence, and sport — from California through British Columbia to Alaska, was just over 19,000 tonnes.

The IPHC, with three representatives each from Canada and the United States, sets annual fleet quotas.

“It can get acrimonious at times, but we’re all fishermen and we go for a drink together afterwards,” says Boyes, who served as a Canadian commissioner from 2012 to 2017.

Whichever side of the border you fish for halibut on, getting into the business is a formidable challenge. Boyes estimates the fiberglass Borealis I is worth at least $1.2-million, though someone could get a used wooden boat suitable for halibut fishing for closer to $300,000.

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Captained by Dave Boyes, the 17.5-metre Borealis I is used primarily to fish for halibut in the northeast Pacific. Photo by Larry Pynn.

Younger fishers starting from scratch would have to lease quota from others in the fleet and slowly work their way into the industry, perhaps supplementing their income by fishing for herring, salmon, tuna, or prawns.

“Like farming, it takes a lifetime to build up a profitable operation,” says Boyes. “The idea of a 20-something just jumping in and having a successful fishing business right off the bat does not happen and never did happen.”

Boyes’s 2018 fishing quota is 22 tonnes, about one-third of that leased, mainly from Canfisco, a seafood business owned by Vancouver business magnate Jim Pattison, at an approximate rate of $4.35 per 0.45 kilogram. Indeed, the quota system has created a situation whereby individuals, including those grandfathered into the fleet, can “fish” from their couches, profiting from leasing without even smelling the salt air.

The cost of getting into the business rises about 20-fold for anyone wishing to buy—rather than lease—quota from within the fleet.

“Halibut fishing is like royalty,” Tiare says. “Either you are born into it or you marry into it.”

Wyness cannot resist teasing. “That’s why we call you princess.”

Keeping the boat running isn’t cheap either. This one trip will burn up an estimated $3,000 in diesel fuel, plus $1,770 for dockside monitoring. Boyes also just spent $10,000 for a rebuilt anchor winch. This year, Boyes will go fishing twice, over a total of 11 days, to land a halibut catch with a value approaching $400,000.

Then there are the crew costs. Grout gets $40,000 as deck boss for the season, and each of the three other crewmembers gets $34,000. “It’s like winning the lottery,” confides deckhand Kyla Savage while sending another halibut down the chute.

“Dave is very generous to his crew.”

After five days of fishing off southeastern Haida Gwaii and one day off Triangle Island near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, Boyes finally steers the Borealis I for the Canfisco dock in Port Hardy. The fish are then trucked to the company’s plant in Vancouver for processing and shipment to markets.

The halibut catch weighs in at 12.5 tonnes — more than half of Boyes’s quota for the season. And the by-catch is well within the vessel’s quota.

As the unloading wraps up, I depart the Borealis I and allow the crewmembers to continue their overnight voyage home. It’s been an enlightening trip for me. I better understand the halibut economy and what it takes to get a fish to market, even if I continue to wince at the high consumer cost.

The battle-weary, liniment-laced crew has a response to anyone who challenges the price of halibut — they recall an Internet photo of a commercial fishing boat buffeted by dangerously high seas. The cutting caption: “Oh! So you don’t like the price of seafood? By all means go get it yourself!”  [Tyee]

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