Atlantic halibut
Atlantic halibut

Halibut is the common name for three flatfish in the genera Hippoglossus and Reinhardtius from the family of right-eye flounders and, in some regions, and less commonly, other species of large flatfish.

The word is derived from haly (holy) and butte (flat fish), for its popularity on Catholic holy days.[1] Halibut are demersal fish and are highly regarded as a food fish as well as a sport fish.[1][2][3][4]


A 2018 cladistic analysis based on genetics and morphology showed that the greenland halibut diverged from a lineage that gave rise to the Atlantic and Pacific halibuts. The common ancestor of all three diverged from a lineage that gave rise to the genus Verasper, comprising the spotted halibut and barfin flounder.[5]

Fishermen in Seward, Alaska with a fresh catch of halibut
Fishermen in Seward, Alaska with a fresh catch of halibut
Halibut caught off the coast of Raspberry Island, Alaska, in 2007: The two fish being held up are 18 to 23 kg (40 to 50 lb)
Halibut caught off the coast of Raspberry Island, Alaska, in 2007: The two fish being held up are 18 to 23 kg (40 to 50 lb)
Halibut tend to be a mottled dark brown on their upward-facing side and white on their underside
Halibut tend to be a mottled dark brown on their upward-facing side and white on their underside
Filleting a Pacific halibut taken in Cook Inlet, Alaska. A halibut yields four large fillets, with the yield percentage higher than for most fish. Round halibut cheeks may provide additional meat
Filleting a Pacific halibut taken in Cook Inlet, Alaska. A halibut yields four large fillets, with the yield percentage higher than for most fish. Round halibut cheeks may provide additional meat

Physical characteristics

The Atlantic halibut is the world's largest flatfish.[6] The IGFA record was apparently broken off the waters of Norway in July 2013 by a 234-kilogram (515-pound), 2.62-metre (8-foot-7-inch) fish. This was awaiting certification as of 2013.[7] In July 2014, a 219-kilogram (482 lb) Pacific halibut was caught in Glacier Bay, Alaska; this is, however, discounted from records because the halibut was shot and harpooned before being hauled aboard.[8]

Halibut are dark brown on the top side with a white to off-white underbelly and have very small scales invisible to the naked eye embedded in their skin.[9] Halibut are symmetrical at birth with one eye on each side of the head. Then, about six months later, during larval metamorphosis one eye migrates to the other side of the head. The eyes are permanently set once the skull is fully ossified.[10] At the same time, the stationary-eyed side darkens to match the top side, while the other side remains white. This color scheme disguises halibut from above (blending with the ocean floor) and from below (blending into the light from the sky) and is known as countershading.


Halibut feed on almost any fish or animal they can fit into their mouths. Juvenile halibut feed on small crustaceans and other bottom-dwelling organisms. Animals found in their stomachs include sand lance, octopus, crab, salmon, hermit crabs, lamprey, sculpin, cod, pollock, herring, and flounder, as well as other halibut. Halibut live at depths ranging from a few meters to hundreds of meters, and although they spend most of their time near the bottom,[1] halibut may move up in the water column to feed. In most ecosystems, the halibut is near the top of the marine food chain. In the North Pacific, common predators are sea lions, killer whales, salmon sharks and humans.

Halibut fishery

The North Pacific commercial halibut fishery dates to the late 19th century and today is one of the region's largest and most lucrative. In Canadian and US waters, long-line fishing predominates, using chunks of octopus ("devilfish") or other bait on circle hooks attached at regular intervals to a weighted line that can extend for several miles across the bottom. The fishing vessel retrieves the line after several hours to a day. The effects of long-line gear on habitats are poorly understood, but could include disturbance of sediments, benthic structures, and other structures.

International management is thought to be necessary, because the species occupies waters of the United States, Canada, Russia, and possibly Japan (where the species is known to the Japanese as ohyo), and matures slowly. Halibut do not reproduce until age eight, when about 80 cm (30 in) long, so commercial capture below this length prevents breeding and is against US and Canadian regulations supporting sustainability. Pacific halibut fishing is managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

For most of the modern era, halibut fishery operated as a derby. Regulators declared time slots when fishing was open (typically 24–48 hours at a time) and fisherman raced to catch as many pounds as they could within that interval. This approach accommodated unlimited participation in the fishery while allowing regulators to control the quantity of fish caught annually by controlling the number and timing of openings. The approach led to unsafe fishing, as openings were necessarily set before the weather was known, forcing fisherman to leave port regardless of the weather. The approach limited fresh halibut to the markets to several weeks per year, when the gluts would push down the price received by fishermen.[citation needed]

Individual fishing quotas

In 1995, US regulators allocated individual fishing quotas (IFQs) to existing fishery participants based on each vessel's documented historical catch. IFQs grant to holders a specific proportion of each year's total allowable catch (TAC). The fishing season is about eight months. The IFQ system improved both safety and product quality by providing a stable flow of fresh halibut to the marketplace. Critics of the program suggest, since holders can sell their quota and the fish are a public resource, the IFQ system gave a public resource to the private sector. The fisheries were managed through a treaty between the United States and Canada per recommendations of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, formed in 1923.

A significant sport fishery in Alaska and British Columbia has emerged, where halibut are prized game and food fish. Sport fisherman use large rods and reels with 35–70 kg (80–150 lb) line, and often bait with herring, large jigs, or whole salmon heads. Halibut are strong and fight strenuously when exposed to air. Smaller fish will usually be pulled on board with a gaff and may be clubbed or even punched in the head to prevent them from thrashing around on the deck. In both commercial and sport fisheries, standard procedure is to shoot or otherwise subdue very large halibut over 70–90 kg (150–200 lb) before landing them.[citation needed]

As food

Hot smoked Pacific halibut
Halibut, Atlantic and Pacific, raw
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy380 kJ (91 kcal)
0 g
Sugars0 g
Dietary fiber0 g
1.3 g
18.6 g
Vitamin A67 IU
Thiamine (B1)
0.05 mg
Riboflavin (B2)
0.03 mg
Niacin (B3)
6.5 mg
Vitamin B6
0.55 mg
Folate (B9)
12 μg
Vitamin B12
1.1 μg
Vitamin C
0 mg
Vitamin D
190 IU
Vitamin E
0.61 mg
7 mg
0.2 mg
23 mg
0.01 mg
236 mg
435 mg
45.6 μg
68 mg
0.4 mg
Other constituentsQuantity
Water80.3 g
Cholesterol49 mg

Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.


Raw Pacific or Atlantic halibut meat is 80% water and 19% protein, with negligible fat and no carbohydrates (table). In a 100-gram (3+12-ounce) reference amount, raw halibut contains rich content (20% of more of the Daily Value, DV) of protein, selenium (65% DV), phosphorus (34% DV), vitamin D (32% DV), and several B vitamins: niacin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 (42–46% DV).

Cooked halibut meat – presumably through the resulting dehydration – has relatively increased protein content and reduced B vitamin content (per 100 grams), while magnesium, phosphorus, and selenium are rich in content.[11]

Food preparation

Halibut yield large fillets from both sides of the fish, with the small round cheeks providing an additional source of meat.[12] Halibut are often boiled, deep-fried or grilled while fresh. Smoking is more difficult with halibut meat than it is with salmon, due to its ultra-low fat content. Eaten fresh, the meat has a clean taste and requires little seasoning. Halibut is noted for its dense and firm texture.

Steamed halibut in black bean sauce
Steamed halibut in black bean sauce

Halibut have historically been an important food source to Alaska Natives and Canadian First Nations, and continue to be a key element to many coastal subsistence economies. Accommodating the competing interests of commercial, sport, and subsistence users is a challenge.

As of 2008, the Atlantic population was so depleted through overfishing that it might be declared an endangered species. According to Seafood Watch, consumers should avoid Atlantic halibut.[13] Most halibut eaten on the East Coast of the United States is from the Pacific.[citation needed]

In 2012, sportfishermen in Cook Inlet reported increased instances of a condition known as "mushy halibut syndrome". The meat of affected fish has a "jelly-like" consistency. When cooked it does not flake in the normal manner of halibut but rather falls apart. The meat is still perfectly safe to eat but the appearance and consistency are considered unappetizing. The exact cause of the condition is unknown but may be related to a change in diet.[14][15]

Other species sometimes called "halibut"


  1. ^ a b c Uncle Ray (10 September 1941). "Right Eye of Halibut Moves Over to the left Side of Head". The Pittsburgh Press. Retrieved 4 October 2010. The name "halibut" means "holy flatfish". It came from halibut being a popular food fish on holy days in England during early times.
  2. ^ Moira Hodgson (11 November 1990). "FOOD; Putting a Spotlight on Halibut". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 October 2010. In England, halibut has always been popular...
  3. ^ "Follow Rules to Serve Fish Without Odor". The Milwaukee Journal. 11 February 1954. Retrieved 4 October 2010. Fish can provide an economical main dish. Have boiled, baked or fried fish, or like most folks, choose cod, halibut, or ocean perch. They're the three most popular fish varieties
  4. ^ Ted Whipp (8 April 2009). "Fish and chips on Good Friday's menu". The Windsor Star. Archived from the original on 26 August 2012. Retrieved 4 October 2010. He and his son ... expect hungry hordes, especially for the halibut, the most popular fish on the menu.
  5. ^ Vinnikov, Kirill A.; Thomson, Robert C.; Munroe, Thomas A. (2018). "Revised classification of the righteye flounders (Teleostei: Pleuronectidae) based on multilocus phylogeny with complete taxon sampling". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 125: 147–162. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2018.03.014. PMID 29535031. S2CID 5009041.
  6. ^ Orlov, A. M.; Kuznetsova, E. N.; Mukhametov, I. N. (2011). "Age and growth of the Pacific halibut Hippoglossus stenolepis and the size-age composition of its catches in the North-Western part of the Pacific Ocean". Journal of Ichthyology. 51 (4): 306–323. doi:10.1134/S0032945211020068. S2CID 45475596.
  7. ^ 515-Pound Halibut Caught By Marco Leibenow Near Norway May Be World Record Woods 'n Water Magazine, 19 August 2013.
  8. ^ "California man catches 482-pound halibut in Alaska". Associated Press. 11 July 2014. Archived from the original on 2 November 2014. Retrieved 27 April 2015.
  9. ^ Pacific Halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  10. ^ "The Mysterious Origin of the Wandering Eye". ScienceBlogs. ScienceBlogs LLC. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  11. ^ "Fish, halibut, Atlantic and Pacific, cooked, dry heat per 100 grams". by Conde Nast; version SR-21 of the USDA National Nutrient Database. 2018. Retrieved 24 September 2019.
  12. ^ "How to Fillet Halibut". Salmon University. 19 October 2013. Retrieved 24 September 2019.
  13. ^ "Monterey Bay Aquarium: Seafood Watch Program-All Seafood List". Monterey Bay Aquarium. Archived from the original on 18 April 2010. Retrieved 17 April 2008.
  14. ^ Smith, Brian Mushy halibut syndrome reported by Inlet fishermen Peninsula Clarion/Anchorage Daily News 30 June 2012
  15. ^ Alaska Department of Fish and Game Mushy Halibut Syndrome

Further reading