Nature is stranger than fiction. Halibut, it turns out, is the largest member of the flounder family, a flat fish. Halibut are born with eyes on either side of their heads and as youngsters they swim upright like a salmon. At about six months, one eye migrates to the other side and the fish tilts and swims horizontally. The top side, with vision, darkens so that, if you’re looking down at the fish, it blends into the ocean floor. The underside remains white so that, if you’re looking up at the fish, it blends into the water and light above (this form of natural subterfuge is known as countershading).
Halibut can easily reach six feet in length and two or three hundred pounds in weight, and much larger ones have been reported. They can live as long as 40 to 50 years and prefer the cold waters of of the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans. While most of their time is spent near the bottom, they move towards the surface to feed. In addition to people, their natural predators are sea lions, killer whales and some species of shark.
Halibut do not reach sexual maturity and reproduce until age ten for females and age seven for males and, as a result, commercial capture below this age is against US and Canadian sustainability regulations. Atlantic halibut, which are larger and some think more delicate in taste than their West Coast counterparts, have suffered overfishing. Seafood Watch (a program sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that helps consumers choose seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that do not harm the environment) advises consumers to avoid Atlantic halibut, and most halibut sold in the United States now comes from the Pacific. The fishing industry calls halibut that weigh over 100 pounds whales, soakers, or barn doors. Halibut under 20 pounds are called chickens.
The name reflects the fact that halibut have long been considered a prime food fish. It derives from Middle English words hali (holy) and butte (flat fish) because of its popularity on meatless Catholic holy days. Cooked halibut is low in fat, has relatively few bones and a dense, firm texture. It is snowy white and has a clean taste. While halibut holds together well when subjected to grilling and frying, many find that it’s delicate, subtle flavor and texture is best enhanced by baking.