A halibut is a type of flatfish from the family of the right-eye flounders (Pleuronectidae). This name is derived from haly (holy) and butt (flat fish), alleged to be called so from being commonly eaten on holy-days. Halibut live in both the North Pacific and the North Atlantic oceans and are highly regarded food fish.
Careful international management of Pacific halibut is necessary, as the species occupies the waters of the United States, Canada, Russia, and possibly Japan (known to the Japanese as Ohyo), and is a slow-maturing fish. Halibut do not reproduce until age eight, when they are approximately 30 inches (76 cm) long, so commercial capture of fish below this length is an unsustainable practice and is against U.S. and Canadian regulations. Halibut fishing in the Pacific is managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC).
For most of its modern duration, commercial halibut fishery operated as a derby-style fishery where 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 window. 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 frequently led to unsafe fishing as openings necessarily set in advance and fisherman felt compelled economically to leave port virtually regardless of the weather. The approach also provided fresh halibut to the markets for only several weeks each year.
In 1995, regulators in the United States implemented a quota-based fishery by allocating individual fishing quotas (IFQs) to existing fishery participants based on each vessel's documented historical catch. IFQs grant holders a specific proportion of each year's total allowable catch (TAC) as determined by regulators and can be fished at any time during the 9-month open season. The IFQ system improved both the safety of the fishery and the quality of the product by providing a stable flow of fresh halibut to the marketplace. Critics of the program suggest that, since IFQs are a saleable commodity and the fish a public resource, the IFQ system gave a public resource to the private sector. Would-be fisherman who were not part of the initial IFQ allocation are also critical of the program saying that the capital costs to fishery entry are now too high.
There is also a significant sport fishery in Alaska and British Columbia where halibut are a prized game and food fish. Sport fisherman use large rods and reels with line weights from 80 to 150 pound test, and often bait with herring, large jigs, or even whole salmon heads. Halibut are very strong, thus in both commercial and sport fisheries large halibut (over 50 to 100 pounds (20 to 50 kg)) are often shot or otherwise subdued before they are brought onto the boat. The sport fishery in Alaska is one of the key elements to the state's summer tourism economy. Halibut are typically broiled, deep fat fried or lightly grilled while fresh. The fillets can also be smoked but this method is more difficult with halibut meat than it is with salmon, due to the ultra-low fat content of halibut. Eaten fresh, the meat has a very clean taste and requires little seasoning. Halibut is also noted for its very dense and firm texture, almost more akin to chicken.
Halibut have been an important food source to Native Americans and Canadian First Nations for thousands of years and continue to be a key element to many coastal subsistence economies. The management of the halibut resource to accommodate the competing interests of commercial, sport, and subsistence users is a contentious current issue.
The Atlantic fishery of halibut has been extremely depleted through overfishing to such an extent that it may possibly be declared an endangered species. According to Seafood Watch, Atlantic halibut is currently on the list of seafood that sustainability-minded consumers should avoid. Almost all halibut now bought on the East coast are now Pacific halibut.