ILWACO — Butch Smith had not planned to offer charter boat trips for halibut this year.
The owner of Coho Charters in Ilwaco and Port of Ilwaco commissioner usually takes customers out for sturgeon, salmon and crab in the Columbia River and on the Pacific Ocean.
But then the coronavirus hit and many spring fishing opportunities disappeared.
State parks closed. Local governments sought to limit tourism. Both Washington state and Oregon asked people to stay home and passed restrictions on recreational activities and group sizes to try to slow the spread of the virus.
These measures, established in March and April, did not begin to ease until June. Recreational halibut fisheries opened elsewhere on the Oregon Coast in May, and now it’s this area’s turn.
A halibut fishery opens off the Columbia River next month, and Smith is readying his gear.
“We couldn’t fish essentially from March through about the middle of June,” Smith said. “So to make up for some of those losses, we’re going to do some halibut.”
The coronavirus has hit nearly everyone in some way, he added.
“2020, for every industry, it’s just been a perfect storm of a mess,” he said. “It’s the year that we’ve got to try to survive and make it to next year.”
Pacific halibut, like many fish, make you wonder who exactly was the first person to look at one and think, “I’m sure this weird animal is delicious.”
In a normal year, the recreational halibut fishery off the Columbia River can draw many anglers to the Oregon and Washington state coasts in the spring. Sea Breeze Charters in Ilwaco sees quite a few reservations made a year ahead. The majority of their customers come from out of town, often from cities off the Interstate 5 corridor, but also from across the country.
Spring halibut fishing acts as the kickoff for Sea Breeze boats and business is usually brisk. Salmon and albacore follow close behind as spring turns into summer, keeping boats consistently busy.
This year, co-owner Patrick Schenk wonders if he will see much of a profit from the halibut fishery.
In addition to his boat maintenance costs, moorage and insurance — costs other boat operators must consider as well — he also has the costs of keeping the charter company building and business operational.
Other fisheries will already be in motion and social distancing requirements will limit how many people can go out on a boat at once. With the late start, charter companies lost out on people who had planned a halibut fishing trip around a May or June vacation.
“Luckily,” Schenk said, “last year was a good year. I’m not figuring to make any money, but I’d like to minimize my losses.”
With the coronavirus outbreak in full swing in the Pacific Northwest, state fishery managers looking at a season for the Columbia River Subarea had to juggle local and state guidelines and restrictions with a fishery that is informed by federal and international groups as well as the states. They decided to wait to open the fishery here.
They did not want to open in a way that would target fishing like a laser beam, especially “when the communities weren’t quite ready for it,” said Lynn Mattes, halibut project leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The halibut quota provided for the Columbia River Subarea is a small percentage of the overall halibut quota recreational fishermen are allowed in a season across the West Coast.
In the all-depth halibut fishery, the quota can get eaten up fairly quickly by May or mid-June. The nearshore fishery continues on for longer, but with minimal effort and landings.
With the usual start time disrupted, it may take anglers a little longer to dial in where the fish are in August, Mattes said.
At this point, the states plan to propose a May opening for halibut fishing off the Columbia River at meetings this fall, but Mattes expects the coronavirus pandemic will continue to be a factor in their discussions.
She anticipates a season proposal that includes some caveat along the lines of, “This is what we’re planning, but …”