BAR HARBOR — As the brief halibut season comes to a close, several fishermen, seafood suppliers and lobster pounds across Hancock County said this year was a quiet one.
“The first few days of halibut trawling looked promising and then it went to pretty much nothing,” said Debbie Parsons, the owner of Parsons Lobster in Bar Harbor.
The flatfish is one of the largest fish found in the Gulf of Maine and it’s a sure sign of spring when they start showing up in lobster pounds and on restaurant plates.
The halibut season in Maine is a short one, running from mid-May to mid–June, in order to avoid overfishing. Fishermen can catch up to 25 of them, as long as the fish are at least 41 inches long.
Halibut can grow up to 700 pounds, though lately in Maine waters, they’ve rarely tipped the scales past 100 pounds.
The fish are usually caught on baited longlines or “tub trawls,” but can also be caught on a rod and reel.
By the end of the short season, Parsons normally gets about 15 halibut in. This year, she’s only gotten three.
“I think they were in early and backed off,” she said.
Halibut can be a money maker for lobstermen early in the spring, or just a way to pass the time waiting for the lobster season to start in earnest.
“For a lot of guys, it’s just fun,” said Pat Shepard, a collaborative research specialist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington. “It breaks up the monotony.”
He’s talked to dealers and fishermen, and they’ve all basically said the same thing: They haven’t seen them.
“Sort of across the board, nobody has really been able to find any,” Shepard said.
Boats he had been working with reported seeing them earlier in the spring, before they are typically spotted in Maine waters and prior to the season’s opening date.
He suspected that this spring’s warmer–than–usual water temperatures off Stonington may have pushed them to deeper waters outside the state’s fishery.
Downeast Dayboat, a Stonington-based seafood supplier, ships fresh fish across the country and takes its orders before getting the catch. The company specializes in scallops but, with the pandemic, more people have been looking for more ways to get fresh fish. Owner Togue Brawn added halibut to the menu and was expecting to get in about 140 pounds of halibut.
She only got 100 pounds, leading her to ask customers to volunteer to trade 1 pound of ordered halibut for 2 pounds of monkfish or hake.
“That’s what happens when you deal with fresh fish,” Brawn said. “What you sacrifice in security and consistency you gain many times over with quality.”
Some fishermen lamented that the season is so short.
“It’s a very short window to be catching 25 fish,” Shepard said. Parsons wished they would have kept the catch limit but made it an open season.
Some fishermen have caught some halibut. This was Southwest Harbor lobsterman Ariel Gilley’s first season fishing for halibut. She caught four, but only two were of legal size. The first was 55 pounds and the second was 50 pounds. She was able to fetch a dock price for both between $7 and $8 a pound.
“It’s fun,” Gilley said. “You are so excited to see the fish on the rack.”
The fishing can get frustrating, especially when you’re not catching more, but at this time of the year, “it’s better than nothing,” Gilley said.
When halibut does hit the menu, though, it’s always a big hit with locals, said Sam Anderson, the chef at Sips in Southwest Harbor.
“It’s definitely a special time of year,” he said. “It’s a unique fish.”
Anderson got three halibut this year, compared to the five or six he gets normally. He tends to cook them simply, with a little bit of white wine, garlic butter, lemon and parsley. They aren’t the biggest product monetarily, but people love when the fresh fish comes in.
“It’s worth going out of your way to find,” he said.