Wild Pacific Halibut Fishery – From 1989 to 2017: New Management Measures and New Entrants

In 1989 Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and commercial halibut fishermen began working collaboratively to improve the sustainability of the wild Pacific halibut fishery. This involved moving from a derby style, unsustainable fishery to one that has 100% at-sea and dockside monitoring, and each vessel is individually accountable for its catch, both halibut and non-halibut species, regardless of whether the catch is retained or released at sea.

Prior to 1989, the commercial halibut fishery had many problems, including:

  1. No at-sea or dockside monitoring of the catch which hindered the ability to accurately estimate the catch.

  2. Exceeding allowable catch limits each year, as the derby-style fishery led to increasing fishing effort and shorter and shorter seasons making it very difficult to monitor and manage.

  3. At-sea discarding of incidentally-caught non-halibut species and the misreporting of these catches was prevalent.

  4. High degree of danger as the halibut season lengths decreased to just 6 days - with skipper and crews taking massive risks, fishing in inclement weather trying for maximum catch in the short amount of time the fishery was open.

  5. Poor product handling created quality challenges as large amounts of halibut were caught in very short amounts of time, negatively affecting prices and the quality of the product supplied to seafood consumers.

  6. The short season meant the market was flooded driving prices down and most of the catch went to the lower value frozen market as the fishery was unable to provide a consistent supply of fresh halibut throughout the year.

  7. Business risk to fishers was very high, as the extremely short season could be made or lost in the matter of one week -- if a vessel had mechanical failure or someone was injured or sick during the crucial high stakes halibut opening, that skipper and crew lost out considerably.

These seven major issues and other similar factors led to the move to a much-improved fishery management approach.

It’s now been almost 30 years since DFO and commercial halibut fishermen started working to improve the management of the wild Pacific halibut fishery. These new management measures have resulted in groups like the David Suzuki Foundation referring to the fishery as a high bar example and the globally-recognized Marine Stewardship Council certification program concludes that the catch accounting system in place in the fishery is one of the most rigorous in the world.

The new measures have eliminated the derby-style race for the fish, allowing for an eight month fishery, as opposed to the six day seasons of the past. As a result, commercial fishing families can take the time to properly handle the fish and provide a top quality source of food for consumers in Canada and around the world.


Not only has the fisheries management regime changed over time, the fishery has also seen change in who is catching the halibut. Each year new participants enter the fishery as some of the existing vessel owners retire or move on to other endeavours. Today there are fourth and fifth generation commercial fishing families participating in the fishery and First Nations are an increasing part of the industry.

There are 435 limited entry commercial halibut licences in the wild Pacific halibut fishery. Since individual quota management was introduced in 1991, many of the commercial halibut fishermen have retired or moved on transferring their vessels, commercial halibut licences, and quota to the next generation and First Nations. DFO licensing data shows that since 1991 only 95 of the 435 L licence holders have not been transferred to a new owner. In other words, 78% of the licences have changed hands since 1991, indicating that the vast majority of the present commercial halibut fishery participants have purchased their licence and individual quota; these BC commercial fishing families and First Nations have invested in the fishery.

First Nations are an important and growing part of the fishery

First Nations individuals, bands, organizations, and companies account for 22.5% of commercial halibut licences, making up a significant and growing part of the fishery and the harvest. It is anticipated First Nations participation will continue to grow as they fish up and down the BC coast under the same rules and monitoring requirements in place in the commercial halibut fishery.

All in the Family

The wild Pacific halibut fishery is also dominated by small, family-owned businesses. Contrary to widespread belief, the fishery is not run, controlled, or owned by “big” businesses.

According to DFO licensing data, only about 4% of the commercial halibut licences are held by seafood processing companies, and many of these are themselves BC family businesses.

Canada’s wild Pacific halibut fishery employs a world class management regime and state of the art monitoring programs. Every species caught is tracked and accounted for, regardless of whether it is retained or released at sea. The fishery uses hi-tech cameras, linked to sensors on the vessel and satellite tracking to monitor and report their catches to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). The fishery has evolved since 1991, not only with new management and monitoring programs, but also with new participants. Seventy-eight percent of the licences have been transferred to new entrants, mainly small family-owned businesses and First Nations who have invested in the fishery and depend on it for their livelihoods. The fishery has been providing tasty and nutritious food to Canada and the world for almost 130 years and wild Pacific halibut fishermen want sustainable resource management so they can continue to do it for the next 130 years.

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