Halibut fishing in San Francisco Bay now "unbelievable"

Halibut fishing has been going on in San Francisco Bay for some time, with sport fishing boats returning early with their limits and commercial fishermen finding more than they sell.

The local spawning season for California halibut, which usually runs from April to October when the fish spawn in the bay, is unusual this year for a number of reasons. Fishermen say the ocean has been particularly windy, making temperatures colder, which has kept more halibut in the bay's temperate waters. In addition, the salmon season is more limited than usual, and both sport and commercial fishing are currently on hold. That leaves halibut as one of the only fish that can be caught locally.

"The fishing is fantastic," said Scott Sutherland, a Berkeley charter booking agent at Berkeley Marina. "The limit (for halibut) is three, and we do that most of the time."

Fishing boats typically leave Berkeley, Emeryville and San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf around 6 a.m. for a full day of fishing. They plan to go until 4 p.m., but they keep coming back around 1:30 or 2 p.m. Sutherland said because everyone reached their limit so early. The fish weighed in at a healthy 18 pounds.

"The fish seemed to be getting bigger every day," Sutherland said.

The local species is known as the California halibut, a smaller, leaner and more delicate white fish than the Alaska halibut. It is also available at fish markets specializing in local catches and at restaurants such as the Good Good Culture Club in San Francisco's Church District, where it is marinated in seaweed and served raw with pickled kumquats.

It's as raw and beautiful as it gets," says Joe Conte, co-owner of Water2Table, who buys halibut caught that day from fishermen fishing online directly from online retail stores and wholesale restaurant operations. "It's really a thriving fishery."

The local fish is more expensive than the California halibut caught in Baja and Southern California, usually on trawlers, but it's popular with chefs this time of year. Nonetheless, Conti has had to limit the nine fishermen he works with to catch no more than 200 to 300 pounds per week.

The difference this year may be related to several factors. While a windy spring is normal, some have noticed stronger than usual winds along the coast, which has led to more upwelling and cooler temperatures in the ocean.

"Halibut like warmer water," said fisherman Ron Koyasako, who noted ocean temperatures of about 49 to 53 degrees, compared with 59 to 61 degrees in the bay.

Overall, ocean temperatures have been cooler in recent years due to La NiƱa weather patterns, said Henry Ruhl, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute's Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System.

Koyasako also said windy conditions and high fuel prices have made fishing on the ocean less attractive. Captain Koyasako of Fisherman's Wharf's Nautilus leads fishing trips and does some commercial fishing for halibut and sea bass in the fall. He catches halibut in 5 to 55 feet of water, where they spend time on the sea bed and are camouflaged with dappled backs.

Koyasako studies tide books and wind forecasts to find the parts of the bay with the clearest water. This is because California halibut are visual predators, unlike Alaska halibut, which rely primarily on scent. To get their attention, he uses live anchovies as bait.

"When the fish pass them by, they explode out of the sand and grab the food," he said.

(According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, if you're concerned about the effects of contamination, California halibut is safe for children and women of childbearing age to eat once a week, and safe for other people to eat twice a week. )

Strong winds this summer bode well for fishing, Koyasako says, when the winds change direction. That's because all the upwelling this spring has brought nutrients to the surface, providing food for the krill and anchovies that halibut, salmon and bass prey on.

The commercial salmon season in the San Francisco area will begin July 8, while the salmon sport fishing season, which is open in April and May, will restart June 23. Until then, halibut are where the most activity is.

"If you're not getting at least two to three of them, you're doing it wrong," Sutherland said.

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