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Fishtales: Halibut

The Great Flatfish

Fishtales: Halibut

Pacific Halibut

{ hippoglossus stenolepis }

Pacific halibut image

Species Info:

  • Longer-living, reaching ages of 50+ years
  • Live at depths of 1000 - 2000 feet
  • record length: 8 feet
  • Record weight: 459 pounds
  • Fished by: F/V Valle Lee, F/V April L, F/V Sunfish
Pacific halibut range

Pacific halibut belong to the scientific genus Hippoglossoides, a compound name that is derived from the Greek words for horse and tongue, evoking their long flat shape. With some weighing over 400 lbs., some halibut do in fact weigh as much as a small horse (though the largest we've caught in a while was 127 pounds). More typically they weigh 30 lbs., which is still three times larger than the average king salmon. In addition to their large size, they have a strikingly odd—almost other-worldly—appearance. Both eyes sit on top the right side of their head, with one side of their body pearly white and the other a mottled brown.

At one point, the halibut of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans were thought to be the same species. We now know that Pacific halibut are a separate species that occupy much of the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to California, and from the Bering Sea to Russia and Japan. As adults, they prefer deep, cold water and are usually found at 1,000 to 2,000 feet below the surface at 37-46 degrees. Some fisherfolk say that the colder the water, the tastier the halibut and that’s why Alaskan halibut tastes the best!

The halibut fishing season in Alaska runs nearly nine months, making it one of the longest seasons for any commercial fish. Since 1995, the fishery has been managed under an Individual Fishery Quota (IFQ) system, meaning that fishermen must own a share of the “quota” in order to fish for halibut. A share of quota secures a portion of the “total allowable catch,” numbers that regional fisheries managers along with international committees dictate at the start of each season.

Fishing Method: Longline

Sitka Salmon Shares uses the longline fishing method to catch halibut Illustration by Carlea Kiddoo

We catch all of our halibut with a targeted, minimal-bycatch fishing technique called longlining. The lines that our fishermen use can be over a mile long, with hundreds of tethered hooks. Fishermen, like co-founder Marsh Skeele and his sister Nora, will bait these hooks and submerge them close to the ocean floor at depths of 60 to 300 yards.

Essential to sustainable halibut fishing is the use of the circle-hook. An innovative modification of the conventional j-hook, circle-hooks are designed to catch fish in the corners of their mouths, so they’re less likely to be swallowed and damage internal organs. That way, when our fishermen catch the wrong species or halibut that are too small, they can be released without life-threatening injuries. They are also safer for fishermen (getting stabbed by a hook while working is never fun). With hundreds of sharp hooks on one line, safety is paramount. Once the line is underwater, the rest is up to the fish. Each fisherman has their secret spots where they know the halibut will bite.

Did You Know?

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Halibut lifecycle illustrations
Adult halibut are easily distinguished by their peculiar face, whereas larvae & juvenile halibut have the symmetry of other species.

Adult halibut are easily distinguished by their peculiar face, whereas larvae & juvenile halibut have the symmetry of other species.

Halibut underside
Adult halibut develop a unique color pattern. Their “bottom” sides take on a light beige tone and their “tops” (the side on which the eyes end up) become a dark greenish-brown.

Adult halibut develop a unique color pattern. Their “bottom” sides take on a light beige tone and their “tops” (the side on which the eyes end up) become a dark greenish-brown.

Culinary Profile

Halibut is known for its beautiful white flesh and large, fat flakes. Its dense texture makes it extremely versatile, perfect for sautéing, grilling, or pan-roasting for a nice, crisp crust. When it comes to cooking halibut, timing is everything. Because it’s such a lean fish, avoid overcooking your halibut by removing it from the heat just before the fish begins to flake, as it will continue cooking for a few minutes off the heat. Once done, halibut will be opaque, firm, and resist flaking when tested with a knife. Halibut’s sweet, mild flavor can be accentuated simply with just a little butter and lemon juice after cooking.

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