TREMONT – Josh Lawson of Bernard was pulling up his longline on a recent Wednesday morning when he saw “a big fish coming up.” It was a 257-pound, 7.3-foot –long Atlantic halibut.
“Well, I was kind of stunned. I was pretty excited,” he said the following day. “I saw the white-bellied flesh, so I knew it was a big fish. And when the big head came up, I knew what it was. It was really an ancient fish. It was the biggest fish I’ve ever seen.”
Lawson was 20 minutes out from Bass Harbor on his boat, Jessica Keeley. Typically, he fishes for lobster and sells it to Thurston’s. But he also holds a state of Maine halibut permit. The state’s halibut fishing program provides an open season in May and June. The size must be 41 inches or greater with the head on, or 32 inches or greater with the head off. Commercial, party or charter vessels may not land more than 25 Atlantic halibut per year. Recreational vessels may land no more than 5 Atlantic halibut per year. All legal-size halibut caught and retained by a commercial or recreational fisherman, regardless of catch location inside or outside of state waters, must be immediately tagged. The fish may be caught only by using one of three sizes of circle hooks. No commercial vessel may use more that 450 circle hooks. Recreational fishermen using a tub trawl are limited to 100 circle hooks. Trawls must have marking buoys.
For Lawson, the big one was his 20th halibut for the two-month season. That same day, he also caught a smaller halibut of about 30 pounds.
He called the big fish a “rare, and probably once in a lifetime catch.” He fishes for halibut mainly for the fun, not the money, he said.
Halibut in the area have been averaging 30 to 40 pounds, he said.
“I’ve got a couple that were 50 pounds this year, and in years past I’ve caught 60, 80 or 100 pounds, but never anything like that,” he said.
When he brought up the giant, he had to cut the trawl and hold the fighting fish against the rail, gaff hook through its jawbone, as best he could while he waited for Mike Conners – a “good guy, and a reliable friend” – to arrive from Thurston’s, where he works, to help him get the fish aboard.
“It was quite strong,” he said. “It was a heavy weight. It was just basically him and me standing there at a stalemate.”
The fish went to his halibut buyer, Maine Shellfish, which cut up the fish and found that the head alone weighed 27 pounds.
According to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Atlantic halibut is the largest species of flatfish found in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. The long-lived, late-maturing flatfish is distributed from Labrador to southern New England. In the Gulf of Maine-Georges Bank region, the halibut population was heavily overfished through the early 20th centuries and has not recovered. There is currently no directed fishery for Atlantic halibut within federal waters, except for Maine’s small-scale harvest. Virtually all landings from the Gulf of Maine-Georges Bank stock region occur as bycatch in U.S. or Canadian groundfish fisheries. The largest halibut reported captured in U.S. waters was 617 pounds, dressed; it was captured off Cape Ann, Mass.
“I think there’s halibut out there,” Lawson said, asked if he thought the stock might be rebuilding. “I think limiting the catch is good….And this year there’s a lot of small fish around, which is good.”
Lawson said that the allowable fishing gear in itself usually limits how big a fish is caught.
“The chance of that circle hook catching him was pretty slim,” he said. “I think most big ones come right off the hook. I think I was just lucky.”