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What is Halibut?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Halibut are commercially valuable food fish found in the Northern waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They have been commercially fished since the late 1890s, and are considered to be a sound choice of fish for consumers who are concerned about the depletion of fisheries and the marine environment. In addition to being available wild caught, halibut is also farmed. The remarkably ugly fish are typically cut into steaks and fillets before being sold in fresh or frozen form.

The name of the fish originates from the Middle English hali, for “holy,” since the fish was often eaten on holy and fast days. Butte meant flatfish, so halibut could be considered the “holy flatfish.” Many languages had similar words for the fish, such as the Dutch heilbot and the Danish helleflynder.

Most fish which are considered to be halibut are in the genus Hippoglossus. All true halibut are right eye flounders, meaning that they have flattened bodies with a distinctive “right” and “wrong” side. When young, they resemble regular fish, swimming through the water like salmon and other species. As they mature, their left eyes migrate to their right sides, and their right sides acquire a green, brown, or gray color, depending on which species the fish represents. The left side remains creamy white.

Most halibut dwell close to the bottom of the ocean, along with other flatfish. They are omnivorous, eating essentially anything they can catch, and when left alone, they can attain massive sizes. Record setting specimens have been recorded at weights above 600 pounds (272 kilograms). The halibut is the largest of the flatfish, and tends to rank near the top of the food chain. Sadly, the fish are not majestic or terribly attractive to look at, with strange gaping mouths and bodies which look as though they have been run over.

The flesh is creamy white with a mildly sweet flavor. Many consumers prefer it to other fish, since it is low in fat and high in many valuable nutrients, including omega-3 acids. Unfortunately, since the fish are slow maturing, they tend to bioaccumulate heavy metals such as mercury, meaning that pregnant women and children should eat the fish in moderation.

Ecologically, halibut is an excellent choice of food fish. Fisheries that raise them are carefully managed, out of concerns for the slow maturing fish. Halibut is typically captured on baited long lines, which have a low by-catch and minimal ecological impact. Farmed fish are relatively easy to raise in a healthy and ecologically sound environment, and they can be prepared in a wide range of ways including grilling, poaching, baking, frying, and roasting.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a halibut?

Halibut is a species of flatfish primarily found in the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans. It's known for its large size, with the Pacific halibut being the world's largest flatfish. Halibut are demersal fish, living on or near the sandy sea floor, and are highly valued for their firm, white flesh which is a popular choice in seafood cuisine.

How big can halibut get?

Halibut are among the largest of all flatfish species. Pacific halibut can grow to be extraordinarily large, with some individuals reaching over 8 feet in length and weighing more than 500 pounds. However, the average size caught for commercial use is typically around 30 to 100 pounds, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

What do halibut eat?

Halibut are opportunistic feeders with a diet that includes a wide variety of organisms. They primarily consume fish such as capelin, pollock, and herring, but they will also eat octopus, crabs, and clams. Their broad diet helps them grow to substantial sizes and supports their role as apex predators in their benthic ecosystems.

How is halibut typically fished?

Commercially, halibut is often harvested using longline fishing techniques, which involve setting out extremely long lines with baited hooks spaced at regular intervals. This method is considered efficient and can be more sustainable than some other fishing practices, as it can be designed to minimize bycatch of non-target species.

Is halibut fishing sustainable?

Halibut fishing is managed to promote sustainability, with organizations like the International Pacific Halibut Commission setting annual catch limits based on scientific assessments. These regulations help maintain the population levels and prevent overfishing. Consumers can look for certification from the Marine Stewardship Council as an indicator of sustainably sourced halibut.

What are the health benefits of eating halibut?

Halibut is a nutritious choice, rich in high-quality protein and low in saturated fat. It's a good source of essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart health. Additionally, halibut provides important vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, magnesium, and selenium, making it a healthy addition to a balanced diet.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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