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Marina del Rey halibut tournament returns with conservation in mind

The halibut derby is back. Whether the halibut are is another question.

The storied Marina del Rey fishing tournament returns after a year on hiatus Saturday as the "Save the Halibut Derby," an acknowledgment that the contest may have played a role in the depletion of the fish in Santa Monica Bay. In years past, contestants reeled them in by the hundreds. But by 2009, the catch had shriveled to a mere handful.

For decades, as many as 1,000 anglers set out by boat, kayak and float tube to hook the monster halibut that would win them a place in the record books. The jackpot — often a fishing trip to Mazatlan or Alaska and a souvenir photograph with Miss Halibut — would go to the proud vanquisher of the heftiest fish, usually a 40-something-pound whopper.

About six years ago, catches at the two-day derby began a precipitous drop, even as attendance surged. The Marina del Rey Anglers, who put on the tournament to raise funds for youth fishing trips, wondered whether the event was damaging the health of halibut in the bay, a place once famous for its seasonal influx of the homely looking but tasty fish, said the group's president, Bob Kissling.

After hundreds of competitors hooked just seven fish over two days in 2009, the club called off the next year's derby to give the halibut a chance to recover.

"Every indication is we're not catching them in the quantity we used to," Kissling said. "And we don't want to be the cause of their demise."

The new, more modest derby will proceed Saturday for its 36th year with reforms intended to reduce stress on halibut stocks.

Sand bass, rock fish and white sea bass have been added to the contest list to shift the burden to other species, making it possible to win the derby without landing a single halibut.

"Some people had a hard time seeing how you'd win the halibut derby without catching a halibut," Kissling said. "But the heaviest fish wins, regardless of species."

The club also scaled it back to a one-day contest and expanded the fishing area south to Huntington Beach and farther out to sea to avoid overfishing the bay. As an incentive to spare some of fish, competitors get a 20% "weight credit" if they safely release the fish after weigh-in.

"You can't have the guys go down in one weekend, pull out all the halibut they can find and wonder why there's no halibut the next," Kissling said.

Halibut is one of a number of fish that have been on the decline for decades in Southern California. The cause is unclear, but environmental groups worry the intense hunt for halibut at the derby — along with the disappearance of the fish's wetland nursery grounds — have contributed to that trend in Santa Monica Bay, a coastline already so depleted that it's been off-limits to most commercial fishing since the 1950s. The angling club thinks storm runoff is to blame for hampering the survival of young halibut.

Sarah Sikich, coastal resources director for the environmental group Heal the Bay, said the club came to her in 2009 with serious concerns about the downward spiral of their catches and have been mindful of the effect they might be having.

"They recognize the pretty drastic decline and have been pretty proactive," she said.

State wildlife officials can't say what's caused the drop-off, in part because there are no hard data about the health of halibut along the California coast.

That's set to change later this month when the California Department of Fish and Game completes its first-ever statewide California halibut stock assessment, a study that could offer some clues, said Travis Tanaka, a marine biologist for the agency. The data could explain if a larger trend, such as a shift of the population up or down the coast, is responsible for the Marina del Rey Anglers' disappointing results.

The fishing group plans to mark the return of the derby with a subdued party atmosphere. In a reflection of scaled-back expectations, the entry fee has been slashed from $85 to $30.

As always, the biggest fish — whatever it turns out to be — will be displayed proudly and photographed overlooking the harbor.

But in place of the trips and brand-new trucks of years ago, winners will be rewarded with trophies, rods and reels.

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