Most people understand that fish don’t pay much attention to boundaries created by humankind.
So it seems to make sense that halibut, a flat fish related to flounder that often is larger than a mat on the floor of a car, would swim back and forth across the Hague Line, the legal division between Canadian and U.S. waters.
That commonsense thought has taken on added importance in recent years as our northern neighbor has built a successful fishery around plentiful, tasty halibut, while Cape Cod fishermen have been limited to landing a single fish per trip for the last 20 years.
Halibut used to be an important winter fishery, but when stocks plummeted more stringent regulations were put in place. Lately though, local fishermen are seeing more and more of the tan, mottled fish, the largest flatfish in the North Atlantic.
But federal regulators had little or no new science on the fish, and no hard proof they were swimming back and forth across the line. If managers had such data, there could be a strong argument to revive the historically important halibut fishery.
So local fishermen, partnering with the Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance and The Nature Conservancy, decided to go out and get the data themselves. When local fishermen caught halibut, as one part of a larger project, they worked with scientists to tag and release them. Captains like Nick Muto from Orleans, Eric Hesse from Barnstable, and Bob Eldredge from Chatham participated.
As it turns out, according to a scientific journal article written by researcher Chang Liu and others, more than half of those halibut – 13 out of 25 – were tracked all the way to Canadian waters.
In addition to that information, George Maynard, research coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance, has been sampling other halibut for age, sexual maturity, and other characteristics. Maynard says that in less than two years, Cape captains he has worked with have collected twice as many fish as the federal trawl survey in the previous decade.
The goal of both studies, which also involve the School for Marine Science and Technology at UMass Dartmouth and the state Division of Marine Fisheries, is to better understand how halibut grow and where they spend their time. With a more complete picture and better science, the hope is fishermen soon will be able to add halibut back into their business plans and continue to strengthen the Cape’s fishing communities – while putting one of the world’s best-eating fish back on local plates.