Halibut are among the largest fish in the sea and the largest of all the flatfish. They can grow to more than 8 ft long and 700 lbs. Halibut weighing in at more than 100 pounds are often called "Whales", "Soakers", or even "Barn Doors", while smaller halibut, less than 20 pounds, are often called "Chickens". The largest Alaskan halibut ever caught while sport fishing was 459 lbs. in Unalaska Bay.
The largest concentration of pacific halibut is in the Gulf of Alaska, with most in the Kodiak Island area. A smaller amount exist in the Bering Sea.
Halibut is prized for its delicate sweet flavor, snow-white color and firm flaky meat. It is an excellent source of high-quality protein and minerals, low in sodium, fat and calories and contains a minimum of bones.
Halibut is very versatile in the kitchen, as well, with many recipes for baking, broiling, pan-frying, deep-frying, poaching or barbecuing.
A fletch refers to a large halibut fillet. One halibut will yield four fletches. Halibut also yield roundish cheeks which are extracted from their head area. Halibut cheeks are sweet flavored and are considered a delicacy.
Commercial halibut fishing began in the 1890's with company-owned steamers carrying several small dories (two-man row boats), from which the fishing actually was conducted. Thereafter, smaller 60' to 100' schooner type boats, specifically designed for halibut fishing, were used in the fishery carrying crews of 5 to 8 deckhands. Most halibut boats used today are more versatile and also take part in the salmon and crab fisheries.
Halibut fisheries have changed dramatically over the past several decades. In the 70's, halibut was fished for during a 5 month season. In the late 80's, only two openers of 24 to 48 hour lengths were available. This "derby style" fishing produced huge landings but low quality catch, not to mention, the extraordinary risks fishermen took during these short periods to secure their seasonal income. In 1995, halibut fishing switched to an individual vessel quota system which has increased the availability of fresh halibut to an 8 month annual span, while also increasing the quality of the halibut landed.
Today, commercial Pacific halibut fishing is regulated by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Members from the U.S. and Canada meet yearly to review research, check progress of commercial fishery, and make new regulations. This management is intended to allow maximum sustained yield of halibut.
Both Alaska and British Columbia halibut fisheries now operate under an Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) system. Under the ITQ system, fishermen "own" their quota and can fish for it anytime from March 15th through November 15th.
Halibut is also fished for in Russia and Japan. Generally the U.S. and Canada's halibut is superior in quality to Russian halibut, but Russian technology is making improvements that will allow them to be more comparable in quality. Russia and Japan halibut are smaller, averaging 10 to 30 pounds, but have higher oil content.
Alaska halibut accounts for 80% of the North America harvest of Pacific halibut. Annual quotas now average about 25,000 tons. The U.S imports more than 8,000 tons from both Russia and Japan.
Halibut are caught using the "long-line" method. This fishing gear consists of units of leaded ground lines in lengths of 100 fathoms which are referred to as "skates". Each skate has approximately 100 hooks spread out along its length. A "set" consist of one or more baited skates tied together and laid on the ocean bottom with anchors at each end. Each end has a float line with a buoy reaching the surface. Hooks are baited with frozen herring or other fresh fish. A skate set could cover several miles of ocean floor. Depending on the fishing grounds, time of year, and bait used, a set is fished 2 to 20 hours before being pulled by a hydraulic puller.
In the past, halibut provided subsistence for several Alaska native coastal villages. Much folklore is found concerning halibut. Each fish hook used was carved with special designs to bring good luck and large fish.
Being a flatfish, halibut have both eyes on the upper dark side. Their upper sides tend to assume the coloration of the ocean bottom, while there underside, being as whitish as it is, tends to blend in well with the sky when viewed from below. These color adaptations allow halibut to avoid detection by both prey and predator.
Halibut spawn in the winter with peaks for December through February. Most spawning takes place off the continental shelf in deep waters of 200 to 300 fathoms. Females lay two to three millions eggs annually, depending on the size of the halibut. Males and females mature 7-8 and 8-12 years, respectively.
Fertilized eggs hatch in about fifteen days. Free-floating eggs and larvae float up to 6 months and are transported up to several hundred miles by currents of the North Pacific Seas. During the flee-floating stage, many changes take place in the young halibut, including migration of the left eye to the right side of the fish. Eventually as the young halibut are carried into shallower waters by prevailing currents, they begin life as bottom dwellers. Click on the gallery to the right to get a close up look at halibut.
Younger halibut, up to 10 years, are highly migratory and generally migrate in a clockwise direction east and south throughout the Gulf of Alaska. Older halibut tend to be less migratory.
Halibut live a long time. Females grow faster and live longer than males. The oldest recorded female was 42 years old and the oldest male was 27 years old.
Halibut are opportunistic feeders, using whatever food is available. Being strong swimmers, halibut are able to eat a large variety of fish including cod, turbot, pollock, crab, and shrimp.
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