SUMMARY | BIOLOGY | HABITAT
Pacific halibut is a very mild, sweet-tasting white fish. Native Americans have fished for halibut off the west coast of North America for hundreds of years. The U.S. commercial fishery started in 1888, when halibut were first landed in Tacoma, Washington. Halibut can be kept for a long time without spoiling, making them a popular target for commercial fishermen. In the mid-1980s, as halibut was abundant and the fishery was very profitable, more fishermen wanted a piece of the pie. As participation in the fishery grew but harvest limits stayed the same, the fishing season shrunk to just 25 days.
The main sources for Pacific halibut are the United States and Canada. Russia also catches a small amount of Pacific halibut. Managers adopted an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program for the Alaska commercial longline fishery in 1995. (Canada implemented a similar program in 1991.) This program allocates a set quota of the allowed harvest to individual fishermen, allowing them the flexibility to harvest their quota within a longer season. This program effectively extended the fishing season to almost 9 months, increasing the value, safety, and efficiency of the fishery. Plus, consumers can now enjoy fresh halibut nearly year-round.
The 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.