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The Ones That Get Away : Study Tags Undersized Halibut That Have to Be Thrown Back


SANTA MONICA BAY — As he stood on the dock at Fisherman's Village in Marina del Rey, 19-year-old Damon Armelin's sardine-baited line suddenly went taut, pulling his rod into an arc. "Fish are ON! Fish are ON!" he cried.

In seconds, a member of the species Paralichthys californicus flipped out of the water before him.

Quickly, the California halibut was thrown, gasping, onto a measuring table: 17 3/4 inches. With the limit set at five a day of 22 inches and larger, this one was too small to keep.

But not too small to tag.

A 3 1/2-inch white plastic tube soon punctured its skin and No. 07195 was tossed back in the brine, joining about 4,850 others in an unusual research program organized by sports fishermen and ichthyologists who want to to learn more about the flat, firm-fleshed species whose numbers are apparently shrinking.

Armelin, a Ladera Heights resident who works as a deckhand on a sport fishing boat, didn't quite believe in what he was doing.

A fish, he said, is like a person. You can track the movement of an individual, but who's to say what others will do?

He had a point, said scientist Robert J. Lavenberg, curator of fishes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and a co-organizer of the tagging project.

"He's right, but that's why we tag so many," Lavenberg said. "Individual fish react differently. It's the movement of the population, not any given individual, that's important."

Anglers who catch the tagged fish are urged to report the size, weight and location of their catch, then throw it back--unless it is big enough to eat, of course.

"We only tag the ones that are less than 22 inches," said Laura Salvador, a phone company employee who was fishing off the dock with Armelin one sunny afternoon.

"Unless you want to be a sportsman," said her boyfriend, Gary Bethel, 37, who suggested jokingly that she throw her catch back.

"We're not sportsmen," Alvarado quickly replied.

Before the tagging program started a year ago, there was little hard data on the population or the migration patterns of the California halibut. Once known as the southern, bastard or chicken halibut, it is a denizen of waters stretching from Baja California to the San Francisco Bay Area.

But after a Halibut Derby scheduled for the Santa Monica Bay this weekend, organizers expect to have more than 5,000 tagged fish in the ocean. Organizers want to set 8,000 more tags by next year.

As they come back--so far, 66 have been returned--and their particulars are fed into a computer, the findings, combined with data from a similar study by the California Department of Fish and Game, may help manage the halibut population in the future.

"Otherwise it's just guesswork," said Ray Ally, associate marine biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, which has tagged about 4,500 halibut since 1991. One fish actually was tagged by both surveys.


One recommendation may be to increase the minimum size for keeper halibut, something unlikely to delight anglers. Or if it turns out that the commuting habits of the halibut vary up and down the coast, regulations could be tightened in some areas and relaxed in others.

Lavenberg said there appear to be several hundred thousand of the brown-topped, white-bottomed California halibut, which, like all members of the flounder family, has both eyes on the top of its head.

"There are halibut out there, but they're still very much reduced compared to what they were in the '60s," he said.

The larger ones seem to be diminishing, he said--particularly the big females who spawn the most eggs. It is not clear why, although it is quite likely that humans have something to do with it.

"There's an awful lot of fishing pressure on these fish," said Ally, of the Department of Fish and Game.

Halibut is one of the few species available to Southern California fishermen early in the year, months before the arrival of the flashier fish of summer such as albacore, yellowtail and barracuda.

"In the wintertime, there's nothing to catch," said Brandon Ford, operator of Happy Man, a sport-fishing boat out of Marina del Rey. "When the halibut start to bite, it creates a hysteria among the fishermen," he said. "That's all I fish for from Jan. 1 until May 1."

Although halibut spend much of the year at sea, they flock to their native grounds in spring like sophomores on spring break, lured by the prospect of spawning and grunion in the shallow, sun-warmed waters of bays, channels and old river mouths.

"We are now capturing fishes that were tagged a year ago, and these fish are, remarkably, returning to areas very close to where they were originally tagged," Lavenberg said.

It remains to be determined how many then go back offshore and shuttle back and forth across the bay or if they move north, as some scholars have suggested, to be replaced by newcomers from Baja California.

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