Dishes fly across the galley. Water gushes through the scuppers and onto the deck. Five crew members on the 17.5-meter commercial halibut cost boat Borealis I walk like drunkards, holding onto anything stable. “We’re going to get bounced around a bit,” Dave Boyes, the boat’s captain, and owner deadpan.
My day started at first light, about six hours ago, watching the crew let out 2,200 galvanized circle hooks laced with chunks of pollock, squid, and pink salmon to soak across 13 kilometers of the ocean bottom. Then, we ate breakfast and rested in cramped, cluttered bunks while the boat bounced on 1.5-meter waves and—below, in the cold unseen depths—the hooks sunk deep into the lips of the predatory halibut.
Now, the crew readies for battle, cinching rubber rain gear and running crude gutting knives across electric sharpeners—a portent of the bloodshed to come. When Boyes toots the boat’s horn, it’s game on.
My love of halibut got me here—in Hecate Strait, off northern British Columbia—as did my disdain for the price. Salmon are held up as the iconic symbol of the Pacific Northwest, but the way I see it, halibut is king, offering superior flavor and texture. When I can afford it, I serve the white fish baked with a glaze of butter, mayonnaise, and whole-grain Dijon mustard.
During a summer visit to my local fish shop—Mad Dog Crabs in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island—fresh halibut fillets sold for CAN $6.38 per 100 grams, compared with $5.28 for sablefish and $3.74 for sockeye salmon. “It’s the prime rib of the sea,” explained fishmonger Scott Mahon, who fished commercially for over 20 years. “Better taste, better quality, and better shelf life.” Unlike the farmed salmon industry, halibut aquaculture remains a relatively nascent enterprise and does not offer a less-expensive alternative to consumers.
Still, I cannot help but wonder why a wild, bottom-dwelling fish costs so much. To find out, I am hitching a ride with Boyes for a week on his first fishing trip of the year, in May, gaining visceral insight into what it takes to put a pretentious little portion of halibut on my plate.
Onboard the boat, I stay well away from the hydraulically powered drum as the first longline is hauled aboard. Minutes go by with only empty hooks returned. “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching,” jokes the burly first mate and engineer, Angus Grout.
The first of about 200 halibut to be caught this day approaches the surface, flashing its white belly and mottled brownish-green back. It’s an average-sized fish weighing about 11 kilograms and measuring about one meter from jaw to tail.
As more fish writhe to the surface, Boyes steers the boat from the deck while simultaneously detaching the hook assemblies and counting each halibut. Grout gaffs the catch and slings it into a plastic tote where it is bonked senseless with a wooden club. Moving down the line, the fish lands with a thud on the gutting table, where other crew members remove the gills and guts. They reach into the cavity and tear out the gonads—“pulling the nuts” as it’s called—somewhat reminiscent of my last digital rectal exam. The fish curl up and give final silent gasps while their powerful tails thump, thump, thump the table in futile resistance.
There was a time not long ago when the commercial halibut fishery proved deadly for man and fish—a free-for-all in which licensed fishers competed to maximize their catches as fast as they could, often in bad weather and with disastrous results. On April 25, 1985, 18 men were rescued from the ocean or the decks of sinking boats and three died when a fierce storm hit the halibut fleet in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, not far from where we are fishing today. “It was a dumb way to fish, and dangerous,” Boyes recalls.