A commercial fishery concerned with the catching of ocean bottom-dwelling fish, namely halibut and sablefish (blackcod). Longlining is practised primarily in the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans; this writeup reflects the fishery as it is practised on the northeastern rim of the Pacific.
Longlining involves the laying out of a long groundline along the bottom of the ocean, to which are attached many smaller lines containing baited fishhooks. At either end, the groundline is anchored; near either anchor, the groundline is connected to a line that is tethered to a buoy (or rather, several connected buoys) at the surface of the waters. These longline “skates” (as the setups are called) are usually deployed and left to accumulate fish for about 12 hours.
Preparing a longline skate is a tedious process; usually requiring hundreds of fishhooks to be baited and their attached lines to be coiled meticulously together (as one might guess, it is extremely easy for monsterous tangles to occur in this process). The groundline, sometimes several miles in length, must also be prepared for deployment through a precise coiling technique; and the anchors and networks of buoys (usually, there is a large orange fender-style buoy, along with a couple sub-marine buoys and a large, floating pole with a flag that is used to mark the skate) must be deployed at just the right moment. In addition, the fisherman must take carefully into account such factors as tidal currents and ocean floor topography when deploying a skate, and will usually have to maneuver his/her boat around a great deal during the process. It is very easy for a fisherman to lose an entire skate if he botches in any of these steps. For these reasons, a longline captain will typically have several crewmen, although a single deckhand will suffice on smaller longliners (experienced fishermen will sometimes even practise the fishery with no crewmen).
Unlike most other fisheries (salmon trolling and gillnetting, for example), both halibut and blackcod longlining are regulated in the US and Canada via the Individual Fish Quota (IFQ) system. Under the provisions of that regulatory system, a longliner may, each year, catch one pound of fish for each pound of IFQs (quota) he/she owns. IFQs for both longline fisheries (halibut and sablefish) can be bought and sold openly, but the government agencies involved (the Pacific Halibut Commission, for example) will at times increase or decrease the quotas allotted to certain geographic areas based on population biology data and the like.
The IFQ system was put in place relatively recently. Until 1990, the halibut and blackcod fisheries were completely open to the public; but were only open for one 2-3 day opening each year. The result of this was an extremely high-stress fishing environment where fishing took place non-stop around the clock during this opening – and where piracy thrived. But in 1985, preparations to switch to the IFQ system were begun. Over the next five years, the government kept record of each fisherman’s catch totals, and in 1990 dealt out the quotas based on this data (i.e., those who caught more during those five years were given more IFQs). Unfortunately, many of the big winners in the IFQ deal-out used illegal methods to boost their catch totals. For example, these fishermen would often begin setting unmarked skates before the fishery’s opening; and when the fishery did open, they would throw out those skates that did not yield many fish within the first 20 or so hooks (when they did this, the buoys would be cut off and the rest of the skate left on the bottom of the ocean, where it would continue to hook unsuspecting fish). During the first few years of the IFQ system, only those who had received IFQs in the initial deal-out were able to buy and sell them; now, however, anyone may purchase quotas for either fishery.
As active halibut tend to dwell in the shallower areas of the ocean, the fish are usually longlined for at about 20-30 fathoms; and often (but by no means always) in areas relatively close to shore (this is the case in fjorded areas, at least). Although substantially larger, halibut are not nearly as valuable as blackcod, typically selling for about ½ to 2/3 the value. Halibut longlining can be quite an adventure – although only very slightly experienced as a deckhand in the fishery, I myself have taken part in landing halibut of up to 350 lbs. The larger ones generally have to be shot before they can be brought on board.
Generally, blackcod must be fished for out in the deep, closer to the edge of the continental shelf (about 20 miles offshore or so). As a result, the fishery is limited to relatively large boats that can handle the rigours of the open ocean. Interestingly enough, however, sablefish can be found in the 400-fathom waters at the entrance of North America’s longest fjord – Chatham Strait. The fjord, located in the Southeast Alaska panhandle, can only be fished with a special “Chatham Blackcod” permit. Blackcod range in size from extremely small (two lbs. or less) to an upper limit of only about 20 lbs. As mentioned above, Blackcod are priced at much higher than halibut, but much of this inflation was due to the fish’s popularity in Japan, which is now on the decline. Although I myself have never been blackcod longlining, I never really understood what their big allure is. Not only are sablefish bland and oily, but very mushy as well. They are also the most fattening and the least nutritious out of all of Alaska’s whitefish.