Pacific halibut

Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) also known as Alaska Halibut or Halibut, is a wild-caught species. Pacific halibut are bottom-dwelling groundfish found on the continental shelf of the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea.

Pacific halibut

Pacific halibut belong to a family of flounders called Pleuronectidae. They are among the largest teleost fishes in the world with reported lengths up to nine feet. Pacific halibut have flat, diamond-shaped bodies and are able to migrate long distances.

Halibut generally are in deeper waters during the winter where they spawn at depths of 600 to 1,500 feet during the period from November through March.

Following spawning, halibut begin to migrate to shallower coastal summer feeding areas. Halibut larvae undergo an amazing transformation. They begin life in an upright position similar to other fish with an eye on each side of the head. However, when the larvae are approximately one inch long, then the left eye moves over the snout to the right side of the head and the pigmentation on the left side of the fish fades.

The young halibut begin to look more like adult fish about six months after hatching and settle to the bottom in shallow, nearshore areas. The halibut now have both eyes on the upper olive to dark brown side of the body while the underside of the fish is lighter white.

Maturity varies with sex, age, and fish size. Females grow faster but mature slower than males. Most males are mature by eight years of age, whereas females on average mature at about 12 years of age. Larval halibut feed on plankton, while adults are carnivorous. Adult halibut prey on cod, pollock, sablefish, rockfish, turbot, sculpins, other flatfish, sand lance, herring, octopus, crabs, clams, and occasionally smaller halibut. Halibut are sometimes eaten by marine mammals, but are rarely preyed upon by other fish.

Most Pacific halibut are caught either in Alaska or off the west coast of Canada with bottom longlines, commonly called ‘skates.’ Each skate has approximately 100 hooks and is anchored to the ocean bottom for two to 20 hours. The groundlines have no appreciable impact on marine habitats and are selective to groundfish, minimizing bycatch.

In Alaska, fishing for Pacific halibut is strictly limited to this bottom longlining method. Bottom longlining causes little habitat damage and has low bycatch associated with it.

In Canadian and U.S. west coast fisheries, Pacific halibut are caught using bottom longlines as well as troll lines and bottom trawl nets.

The U.S. commercial fishery started in 1888, when halibut were first landed in Tacoma, Washington. In the 1890s, a fleet of sailing vessels with two-man dories fished for halibut from the West Coast. Large steam-powered vessels soon entered the industry, and by the 1910s it became clear that halibut stocks were suffering from overfishing.

In 1923 the U.S. and Canada signed a convention on halibut, leading to the eventual creation of the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC).

In 1924 the Commission implemented a three-month closure – the first management action to affect halibut.

Each year, the IPHC conducts their own population assessment and reviews independent assessments to set annual catch limits for fishermen. These limits are then allocated among licensed fishing vessels, giving each boat a prescribed percentage of the total catch limit. In both the U.S. and Canada, the allocation process has resulted in creating longer fishing seasons, while keeping the population healthy.

Halibut is also a very popular target for sportfishers. Oregon, Washington, and California have catch limits for recreational halibut fishing, as with commercial and tribal halibut fishing. The demand for halibut sport fishing is so high that closed seasons, minimum size limits, bag limits, and possession limits are all used to control the recreational fishery and extend the season as long as possible.

The management and fishing techniques of this species leads to an overall recommendation of ‘Best Choice’ for Pacific halibut caught in U.S. and Canadian fisheries. This contrasts the Atlantic halibut fishery which is on the ‘Avoid’ list.

Long-lived and slow to mature, this fish is vulnerable to fishing pressure. Like Atlantic Cod, Atlantic halibut in U.S. and Canadian waters crashed in the 20th century due to overfishing and remain depleted today.

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