When fresh product is not available, distributors often thaw H&G halibut, and then fillet it in a process known as "refreshing." Previously frozen halibut cooks faster than fresh halibut and has a reputation for being dry. Fresh halibut is available in-season from major distributors and frozen (or refreshed) halibut is available year-round. Halibut "cheeks" are a delicacy cut from the head area next to the gills, with a texture similar to crab. The size of the cheeks can range from a few ounces to over a pound. Pacific halibut meat is sometimes found to be “chalky”—a condition associated with “a denaturation of muscle proteins” that appears more often in late summer and in fish caught farther south. The good news is it occurs in only about one percent of halibut. Chalkiness is easy to spot in fillets—the meat is white instead of translucent. While this is acceptable for applications like fish and chips, most buyers don’t want to pay as much for chalky fish.
Key sustainability sourcing notes for Pacific halibut landings from 2014-2016 and the most recent MSC certifications (Seafood Watch has no primary recommendations for Pacific halibut and instead recognizes the MSC certification) are:
~75% of global Pacific halibut landings are MSC-certified (~70% from Alaska, ~25% from British Columbia, and ~5% from Washington)
~25% of global Pacific halibut landings are non-certified and unrated (~98% comes from Russia and ~2% from Oregon)
Global landings increased ~3% from 2014 to 2016, but are down ~12% compared to 2012 landings
Alaska landings increased ~8% from 2014 to 2016, but are down ~27% compared to 2012 landings
Russia landings decreased ~8% from 2014 to 2016, but are up ~40% compared to 2012 landings
British Columbia landings have fluctuated less than 3% +/- year-to-year from 2012 to 2016
Pacific halibut is one of the largest flatfish – they can weigh up to about 500 pounds and grow to over 8 feet long. Males tend to be smaller than females. Males sexually mature when they are 8 years old; females are able to reproduce by the age of 12. They spawn during the winter in deep water along the continental slope, mainly in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, and south to British Columbia. Depending on their size, females can have between 500,000 and 4 million eggs. Scientists believe females release their eggs in batches over several days during the spawning season. Eggs hatch after 12 to 15 days. The larvae slowly float closer to the surface where they remain for about 6 months until they reach their adult form and settle to the bottom in shallow water. Halibut live to be relatively old – the oldest halibut on record was 55 years old, but halibut over age 25 are rare.
Larval halibut feed on zooplankton (tiny floating organisms). Juveniles eat small crustaceans and other organisms that live on the seafloor. Adults aggressively prey on a variety of groundfish, sculpins, sand lance, herring, octopus, crabs, clams, and occasionally smaller halibut. Marine mammals and sharks sometimes eat halibut, but due to their large size, halibut are rarely preyed upon by other fish.
Pacific halibut are found in coastal waters from Santa Barbara, California, to Nome, Alaska. They’re most common in the central Gulf of Alaska, particularly near Kodiak Island. They’re also found on the other side of the Pacific, from the Gulf of Anadyr in Russia to Hokkaido, Japan. Juveniles (1 inch and larger) live in shallow, near-shore waters off Alaska and British Columbia. Halibut move to deeper water as they age. Adults migrate seasonally from shallow summer feeding grounds to deeper winter spawning grounds.
Science & Management
The International Pacific Halibut Commission has monitored halibut populations for over 80 years. Every year, Commission scientists estimate abundance and potential yield of the Pacific halibut stock using commercial fishery data and scientific surveys. Because these surveys contain such a long historical set of data, they are considered to be robust for statistically estimating abundance.
In general, coastwide exploitable biomass (the amount of halibut available to the fishery) is estimated to have declined by about 50 percent since 2000 along the west coast of North America. The extent of the decline and reasons behind it vary by area. While biomass has declined in recent years, the resource remains in a healthy state in all areas.
Beginning in 2013, the Alaska halibut fishery will be monitored by fisheries observers, either human or electronic, depending on the fishing vessel. Observers collect catch data onboard fishing vessels and at onshore processing plants. The data is used by managers and scientists in a variety of research activities, including stock assessments.Tagging studies, using passive integrated transponder (PIT) and pop-up archival (PAT) satellite tags, have enabled managers to better understand the coastwide migration patterns of halibut. As a result, a revised coastwide harvest management strategy has replaced regional closed-area regional harvest management strategies for halibut.
The United States and Canada coordinate management through a bilateral commission known as the International Pacific Halibut Commission disclaimer; NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific and Pacific Fishery Management Councils are responsible for allocating allowable catch among users in the U.S. fisheries.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is responsible for allocating the total allowable catch among users and user groups fishing off Alaska and developing regulations for the fishery, in line with Commission recommendations. NOAA Fisheries is responsible for implementing and enforcing these regulations. Examples of these programs include:
Individual fishing quota program, which allocates the total allowable catch among fishing vessels and individual fishermen. With their catch set, fishermen have the flexibility to harvest their quota anytime, creating a safer, more efficient, more valuable, and environmentally responsible fishery.
Community Development Quota (CDQ) Halibut Program, which allocates a percentage of the total allowable catch to eligible western Alaskan villages to allow them to participate and invest in fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and to support sustainable economic and community development in western Alaska.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries Service Northwest Regional Office establish regulations for halibut fisheries in U.S. waters off Washington, Oregon, and California (Area 2A). The Commission sets the total allowable catch for halibut in this regulatory area, and the Pacific Council allocates the catch among the following user groups: non-tribal commercial (incidental salmon troll fishery, directed longline halibut fishery, and incidental longline sablefish fishery), sport, and treaty Indian commercial and ceremonial-and-subsistence.
Pacific halibut are long-lived and slow to mature, making them vulnerable to fishing pressure.
Pacific halibut, which are found from northern California to the Gulf of Alaska, have a relatively healthy abundance, although catches have been declining in recent years. The reliable abundance is mainly credited to responsible management.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Most halibut landed off North America is caught with bottom longlines. Although the gear does have contact with the seafloor, it doesn’t cause substantial damage. However, the gear’s precise impact on habitats is poorly understood. Off Alaska, longlining has been shown to negatively impact deepwater corals that are slow to recover from the damage.
Seabird bycatch is a concern in this fishery because the birds go after baited hooks as they come off the boat and numerous birds have been killed as a result, including some endangered albatrosses. Management procedures in this fishery are in place to mitigate seabird bycatch, including the mandated use of seabird avoidance devices on longline vessels.
In 1995, an individual quota system replaced the derby fishing system, allowing halibut fisherman a set quota they could harvest any time during the season, eliminating the incentive to fish competitively. Pacific halibut in North America is regulated by the bilateral International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), which is regarded as having a very good track record. In addition to quotas, management measures include size limits and scientific research-based decision-making.