Pacific halibut were fished historically by the indigenous peoples inhabiting the lands bordering the eastern north Pacific Ocean and was included in the diet of many groups who conducted their fishery by hook and line from large canoes, which could venture as far as 20 miles (32 km) from shore. The hooks were elaborately carved and were selective for large fish suitable for drying and smoking. The technique of these fishers was well developed and very efficient as the following excerpt by F. Boas1 explains:
“Halibut are caught with hooks made of crooked branches of red or yellow cedar, attached to fishing-lines made of red cedar bark sixty fathoms long. The halibut hook is tied to the fishing line with split spruceroots. Devilfish (octopus) is used as bait. The fishing lines are taken out by the fishermen in their canoes and thrown overboard. After a while they are pulled up again. After the halibut hooks have been taken up, the fish are killed by clubbing. Then hooks are thrown back into the water. At this place it is said that there were two fishermen in the canoe, who distinguished the halibut they had caught by placing them with the head toward the owner. The fishermen had his knees covered with a mat.”
Today, in addition to providing active commercial and recreational fisheries opportunities to indigenous groups, Pacific halibut continues to be an important subsistence and ceremonial fish. Subsistence Pacific halibut is a traditional food that has always been relied on to feed the communities. Ceremonially, Pacific halibut is used to feed people at culturally important events like weddings, funerals, and naming ceremonies.
In Washington State, thirteen tribes exercise treaty rights to obtain an allocation of the total Pacific halibut catch limit in IPHC Regulatory Area 2A. In 1995, the U.S.A. government prohibited non-treaty commercial Pacific halibut fishing north of Pt. Chehalis off the coast of Washington to achieve court-ordered allocation to the tribes. Tribal groups and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission oversee local management of the fisheries. Native groups in Washington also have subsistence fisheries. The IPHC Regulatory Area 2A tribal ceremonial and subsistence fishery is part of the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Catch Sharing Plan.
First Nations members in British Columbia have access to the commercial fishery and a separate Pacific halibut fishery for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. The First Nations food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fishery allows subsistence use. Commercial fishing is conducted under ‘FL’ licenses that are issued as a part of a First Nations communal commercial fishing program.
Around Annette Island in southeast Alaska, an exclusive fishing reserve extending 3,000 feet (914 m) out from the shoreline was created for the Metlakatla tribal fishery. The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the fishery in 1990, initially on a test basis. Each season length is restricted to 48 hours. No total catch limit exists, but catch totals are included in the IPHC Regulatory Area 2C total. Only tribal fishers may commercially fish within the boundary, and specific regulations beyond those established by the IPHC, have been enacted by the tribal council. The IPHC does not exercise jurisdiction over the seasons and total catch because the fishery is executed internally, but the vessels do submit catch and log information to the IPHC for stock assessment purposes.
Native groups in Alaska also have subsistence fisheries. The Alaskan fishery falls under the general subsistence framework managed by NOAA Fisheries. Fishers must obtain a Subsistence Halibut Registration Certificate (SHARC) from NOAA Fisheries before fishing under the subsistence Pacific halibut regulations.