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What’s so special about Alaska Gold Halibut?

pan-seared halibut
Pan-seared halibut

What’s so special about Alaska Gold Halibut? Simply put, what’s special about halibut is their luscious flake, which is delicate but meaty. Its snow white meat and naturally sweet, delicate flavor and firm texture that retains its shape with any cooking style makes it the world’s premium white-fleshed fish, making it wildly popular with all kinds of chefs. Halibut is not unlike a white-colored steak, which makes them widely popular. And our Alaska Gold Halibut are caught by a fishermen-owned co-op whose quality comes from integrity, a pride in being fishermen-owned for more than 70 years. Halibut are delicious cooked in a variety of ways–this pan-seared halibut recipe is just one of an endless number of possibilities for halibut.

Halibut are as flat as a board and they spend a good portion of their lives roaming the ocean floor. What’s really wild and unusual about halibut is that they are born with eyes on each side of their head–however, after six months their left eye migrates to join the right eye on their “dark side,” giving halibut two eyes on the same side of their heads. Their top side or “dark side” with two eyes is a dark green-ish to brown-ish color to match the color of the ocean floor. This color camouflages them from predators like sharks and orcas (killer whales) who also enjoy the taste of a fine halibut. If they leave the ocean floor to migrate, for example, their bottom side is a snowy white and a predator looking up will have trouble distinguishing the halibut if the sun is shining above them through the water.

Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) are a type of flounder. Hippoglossus means “horse tongue,” which refers to the halibut’s large mouth and tongue. Stenolepis means narrow scale and refers to the halibut’s almost invisible scales.

There are Atlantic halibut, too. However, they are on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program’s “Avoid” list because the Atlantic halibut stock is depleted. In contrast, Pacific Halibut coming from Alaska is recommended and on the Seafood Watch’s “Recommended List,” as its certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. The Pacific halibut stocks are healthy and carefully managed. Since they are fish that cross international borders between Canada and the United States in their migrations, in 1923 the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) was formed. The IPHC was the first international treaty in the world established with the purpose of protecting a marine resource. Biologists from both countries work together to understand the lives and migration patterns of the halibut in order to preserve the halibut for future generations. The IPHC has been able to maintain a stable fishery and prevent stock and environmental problems that have caused problems in other parts of the world. Fisheries scientists around the world look at the IPHC as a model of good fishery management.

During the summer, halibut feed on the continental shelf, but then migrate to deeper waters during the winter, spawning somewhere on the continental slope along the way .

In Southeast Alaska, the Tlingits harvested halibut during spring and this rich bounty from the sea made the Tlingits one of the richest societies in human history with nourishing foods and meaningful arts. Traditional Tlingit halibut hooks consist of two pieces of wood, usually alder and cedar, lashed together at an angle of roughly 30 degrees with split spruce root. They used a rock as an anchor and fished in canoes up and down the coasts of what we now call Alaska and British Columbia.

Halibut in Tlingit native art style
A “Healing Halibut” in the Tlingit art style spotted at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle.

The long lines used today, though operated on somewhat bigger boats with diesel power, work with principles that aren’t that different than those used by the Tlingits. Typically, long liners use an anchor and buoy to spread long lines baited with salmon, squid or herring on a “ganion.” After 12 hours or so of “soaking” the lines on the bottom of the ocean, the captain finds the buoy and the fishing crews haul up the lines and the halibut using what the fishermen call a gurdy, which is a hydraulically powered winch used to pull up the heavy lines. 

Pacific Halibut
A herd of halibut migrating.

Male halibut can reach 100 pounds but females can weigh upwards of 500 pounds. Bigger fish mean more eggs. A 50-pounder lays about 500,000 eggs. A 250-pounder can lay 4 million eggs. Large halibut are called “barn doors,” because they’re flat and large and you can imagine what it’s like to haul them up from the bottom of the ocean–hard work! When they’re smaller they eat shrimp and small crabs. Then they move on to octopus, squid and other fish.

Alaska Halibut
The crew of the F/V Sword with a very large halibut on the co-op’s docks in Sitka, Alaska.

Halibut are particularly important to the history of our fishermen-owned cooperative, which was formed by fishermen who processed halibut in vitamin A. This was in the time before vitamin A was synthesized.  Up until 1980, Seafood Producers Cooperative was the Halibut Producers Cooperative. The name changed to more accurately reflect the other fish being caught (particularly wild salmon and black cod), but halibut has always been the backbone of this organization.

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A lot of the information from this blog post is shared in a beautifully illustrated, kid-friendly book Pacific Halibut: Flat or Fiction?