Holly Masterson of Southwest Harbor, sternman on Mike Carroll’s F/V Molly Hock, stands with an Atlantic halibut caught last May. PHOTO COURTESY OF MOLLY CARROLL

Are Maine halibut headed for trouble?

PORTLAND — Go to Scales, an elegant waterfront restaurant on a Portland pier, and a plate of pan-roasted halibut with hazelnuts, brown butter and new potatoes will cost you $38, tax and tip extra.

Go down to the dock in Lubec or Stonington during May and June, when Maine fishermen are allowed to harvest halibut from state waters inside the three-mile limit, and $38 would buy you about 5 pounds of halibut, if you could buy less than a whole fish directly off the boat.

And that’s the problem.

Over the decade between 2006 and 2015, the last year for which the Department of Marine Resources has figures, the boat price for halibut increased some 44 percent and landings increased from just 30,018 pounds worth about $139,000 to more than 93,000 pounds that brought fishermen some $623,000.

Now federal fisheries regulators are saying that halibut may be in trouble.

Of course, it isn’t just that Maine fishermen are landing more halibut. It’s fishermen from all over New England who are pulling in plenty of the pricy and delicious flatfish from federal waters.

In 2006, only Maine recorded halibut landings. In 2015, according to NOAA Fisheries, halibut landings throughout New England reached almost 216,000 pounds – worth about $1.4 million. Of that, about 123,000 pounds were landed outside Maine.

That may not be a lot of money compared to the nearly $511 million that Maine’s lobster fishermen reaped in 2015, but it is enough to attract more boats into the fishery and to have regulators and fisheries scientists worried. Early in December, the New England Fishery Management Council announced that a review of the rules governing the halibut fishery would be a priority during 2017.

The fishery for halibut in Maine and New England pales in comparison to the fishery for Pacific halibut in Alaska and along the West Coast. In 2015, Pacific halibut landings totaled more than 24.2 million pounds worth more than $118 million to fishermen. In Alaska alone, fishermen landed some 22.9 million pounds of Pacific halibut and put about $111 million in their pockets.

Atlantic halibut are bottom-dwelling flatfish, similar to sole or flounder, with both eyes located on the upper side of their bodies. They can grow to be enormous. Old photographs show halibut as long as a man is tall, and records show that Maine fishermen once landed fish weighing 600 pounds or more.

According to NOAA fisheries, it is rare now for fishermen to land an Atlantic halibut weighing more than 100 pounds.

Under current rules, fishermen must send a monthly log with information from every trip to the DMR landings program. They’re allowed to fish for lobster on the same trips, because lobster is not a “marine species” under federal rules. The captain must estimate how much of each trip was spent traveling and hauling halibut trawls.

Lobstermen fishing for halibut must apply for a special endorsement on their commercial lobster license issued by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). In the past, the DMR has required a training course to teach fishermen about the regulations involved for the species. Now the department sends a compliance guide to new license holders outlining the requirements instead.

Fishermen who hold a federal groundfish permit are limited to one halibut per trip, regardless of whether they are fishing in state or federal waters. Commercial fishermen with the DMR endorsement but no federal permit are not limited to one per trip. Both groups may land a maximum of 25 Atlantic halibut per year. The fish must be tagged with a marker from the DMR attached around or through the tail until it reaches its final destination.

The fish must be at least 41 inches long with the head on, or 32 inches with the head off. Filleting the fish at sea is prohibited by state regulations, according to the DMR, because the Marine Patrol must be able to determine compliance with minimum-size rules.

Reporter Liz Graves contributed to this story.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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