Northwest Fisheries Science Center

California Halibut Trawl

Sector Description

The California halibut trawl sector generally operates out of U.S. ports from San Francisco to Los Angeles, California. Vessels range in size from 29 to 71 feet, with an average length of 46 feet. Fishing generally occurs in less than 30 fathoms of water and vessels deliver catch to shore-based processors.

In 2006, the state of California began requiring state-issued licenses to participate in this sector. Management includes state-designated California Halibut Trawl Grounds (CHTG) from Point Arguello to Point Mugu, California. Commercial bottom trawling is prohibited in California state waters, with the exception of the CHTG. Regulations for vessels operating in the CHTG include minimum mesh sizes to reduce bycatch, a three-month closed season during California halibut spawning, a possession limit on the incidental take of fish other than California halibut, a minimum size limit for retained California halibut, and mandated federal observer coverage by the WCGOP. California halibut is not managed under the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (PFMC) Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP), although it can co-occur with other FMP flatfish species on the continental shelf.

Vessels that participate in the California halibut trawl sector can belong to either the open access (OA) (federal permit not required) or limited entry (LE) (federal permit required) trawl fleet. Federal LE groundfish permitted vessels targeting California halibut are subject to federal groundfish regulations, depth-based area closures, trip limits for groundfish, and must participate in a vessel monitoring system for enforcement purposes. In federal waters, trawling for California halibut can occur year-round, but a state California Halibut Bottom Trawl Vessel Permit is required (as of 2006) to land more than 150 pounds of California halibut per trip. Generally, vessels with a federal LE groundfish trawl permit, which also have a state California Halibut Bottom Trawl Vessel Permit operate in federal waters out of the ports of Monterey and San Francisco, California.

Generally, vessels operating in state waters do not hold a federal LE groundfish trawl permit, and are therefore referred to as open access. Some open access vessels operating out of ports south of San Francisco and within the CHTG deliver their California halibut catch live. This is a low-volume, high-priced component of the fishery and the tow duration for live California halibut is less than the average tow duration for the dead fish fishery. Vessels retain and deliver to processors the portion of catch that is marketable and permitted to be landed. The portion of their catch that is not marketable or prohibited by regulations is discarded at-sea.

Selection Process

Open Access California Halibut Trawl Selection

California Halibut Bottom Trawl Vessel Permits assigned to open access vessels that do not hold a federal LE groundfish trawl permit are selected for observation using stratified random sampling. First, the WCGOP determines the amount of time (based on available resources) it will take to observe a fleet; this is termed the selection cycle. The selection cycle length is often a calendar year and not the California halibut season which spans two calendar years (June-March).

The California Department of Fish and Game provides an initial list of vessels with state-issued California Halibut Bottom Trawl Permits. The following criteria are applied to the list of permits/vessels to select for the open access fleet:

WCGOP sampling strata consist of groups of ports along the U.S. West Coast. Vessels are assigned to a port group based upon the location of their previous year’s landings. Within each port group, vessels are randomly selected for coverage for a two-month period. After the entire fleet has been selected, a new selection cycle begins. This selection process is designed to produce a logistically feasible sampling plan with observations throughout the entire geographic range. Based on this design and WCGOP funding, the program completes the selection cycle for the open access California halibut bottom trawl fleet every year.

Limited Entry Bottom Trawl Vessels Targeting California Halibut

California halibut vessels with a federal LE groundfish permit are selected for coverage under the LE groundfish bottom trawl sector/fleet. See the LE groundfish bottom trawl sector/fleet page for more selection details prior to the implementation of catch shares in 2011. If a LE groundfish bottom trawl vessel was selected during a two-month period for observer coverage, and the vessel targeted California halibut, those trips/tows are observed. Since 2011, all trips made by LE groundfish bottom trawl vessels are observed under the catch share program.

Only those observed tows targeting California halibut by a LE groundfish bottom trawl vessel with a state-issued California halibut bottom trawl permit are included here. Tows where California halibut was not the target are included in reporting for the LE groundfish bottom trawl sector. Tows targeting California halibut were determined using the following criteria:

This selection step was necessary to ensure that all hauls targeting California halibut were included, given the variety of target codes recorded by observers from vessel logbooks. Catch and spatial data from this additional step were reviewed to confirm fishing behavior was consistent with the California halibut fishery.


In some cases, vessels whose permits are selected for a specific period are not covered by an observer during that period or are not covered on all trips during that period. A trip could be waived from observer coverage due to observer availability, a safety issue that can be fixed in a relatively short period of time, or vessel space issues that arise when an extra person is aboard. A longer selection cycle waiver allows the vessel to fish without an observer during all trips taken during the selection cycle. Selection cycle waivers are given when a vessel has a serious safety concern that can not be easily remedied or if vessel space is too limiting to safely carry an observer.

Some vessels might receive a coverage period waiver, which allows a vessel to fish all trips during that period without an observer. Coverage period waivers are given for a variety of reasons including observer availability and vessel safety. If a vessel is given a coverage period waiver for a specific two- month period or sablefish season, the vessel is added to the selection list for the next year (LE sablefish-endorsed) or two-month period (LE non-sablefish-endorsed). Vessels continue to be added to subsequent selection lists until either an observer covers them or until the selection cycle ends, whichever comes first.

Further information on the state California halibut fishery can be found at: The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site

California Halibut Trawl Reporting

Year of data Year of release Description - report title Format
2010 2011 Data from California halibut sector Excel
2009 Oct-10 Data Report and Summary Analyses of the U.S. West Coast California Halibut Trawl Fishery full report (pdf)
2008 Oct-09 Data Report and Summary Analyses of the U.S. West Coast California Halibut Trawl Fishery full report (pdf)
2002-2008 Dec-08 Data Report and Summary Analyses of the California Halibut Trawl Fishery full report (pdf)
2001-2004 Aug-05 Summary of Observed Groundfish Bycatch by Groundfish Limited-Entry Vessels Targeting California Halibut full report (pdf)