• Scientific name: Hippoglossus hippoglossus
  • Also known as: Atlantic Halibut
  • Size: Evidence exists that halibut can grow to over 15ft in length and 700lbs or more.
  • UK minimum size: Halibut have a minimum weight of 22lbs/10kg when caught from the shore, rather than a minimum length.
  • UK shore caught record: No record stands. Qualifying weight set at 10lbs.
  • IUCN Status: EN (Endangered)
  • Distribution: Coldwater fish that can be found around Iceland, Greenland and Scandinavian waters, as well as the northern North Sea. Also found on the other side of the Atlantic in American and Canadian waters.
  • Feeds on: Mostly feeds by hunting other fish, but will also take crustaceans on occasions.
  • Description: Outline is a slim diamond shape with dark brown, green or black back, usually with a mottled light and dark pattern. Underside is pale. Eyes are on the right hand side and tail is very slightly forked. Prominent curve in the lateral line. Large mouth with sharp teeth. Dorsal and anal fins are very long and run the full length of the body.
  • Additional notes: The same species is found in North American waters, where they confusingly sometimes referred to it as turbot.

The halibut is the largest flatfish and one of the largest fish of any type in the world’s oceans. Fully grown halibut prefer water that is at least fifty metres deep, and are usually found in waters substantially deeper than this and seek out depths of 1000 – 2000 metres to spawn. This means that most anglers catching halibut will be on a boat using pirks, lures and livebait. In Norway and other parts of Scandinavia it is possible to catch sizable halibut from the shore. However, in the UK a shore-caught halibut is rare indeed, but a few very small specimens are caught from the shore most years. There is no current UK shore caught record for halibut and the qualifying weight is set at 10lbs. The Atlantic Wolffish is sometimes referred to as ‘scotch halibut’, especially when it is on sale at fishmongers, but this is a completely unrelated species.

Diet and Feeding

Halibut are a demersal fish and therefore live and feed on and near the seabed. Halibut are predators and feed mostly on fish, taking cod, haddock, whiting and all kinds of flatfish, but they will also feed on a range of other sea creatures such as crustaceans, octopus and squid given the chance. They are also thought to sometimes swim into midwater where they will feed on fish and squid species which live there. When fully grown halibut are at the top of their food chain due to their immense size, but smaller young halibut can be preyed on by sharks and other marine mammals such as seals dolphins and whale species.

Halibut – Endangered Species

Fiorello LaGuardia with halibut

Fiorello H. LaGuardia – then the Mayor of New York City – poses with a 300lb halibut at Fulton Fish Market, Lower Manhattan in 1939. Due to the immense commercial pressure on this species halibut of this size are now very rare.

Due to their firm, dense flesh, and the fact that four large fillets can be gained from each fish, halibut are a very highly regarded food fish. The high reputation of this species makes it popular on the menus of expensive restaurants and it will fetch a high price at fish auctions. Due to this intensive commercial pressure halibut stocks have collapsed dramatically in recent years. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classes the halibut as Endangered, meaning that the halibut faces a very high risk of extinction in the near future. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service deems it to be a species of concern, and it is on Greenpeace’s Redlist of fish that are in danger of coming from unsustainable stocks. Halibut are fairly fast growing reaching around twelve inches in length by the end of their second year. However, this species need to be around four feet in length and and around ten years old before they can reproduce, meaning that overfished stocks will take a long time to recover. There are currently restrictions on commercial fishing for halibut in United States water and Iceland banned commercial fishing for halibut in 2012 in an attempt to halt the decline of this species and allow stocks to recover. Under the Icelandic legislation commercial vessels are banned from actively fishing for halibut and must return any halibut caught as by-catch to the sea. If a commercial vessel does bring halibut back to land (either in an attempt to flout the law or because they were hauled on board dead and could not be returned to the sea) then the halibut is sold but all profit goes to Icelandic ocean research and fish conservation measures – not to the fisherman who caught the fish. If more nations adopt robust conservation measures such as this halibut may be in with a chance of recovering in numbers.

Size of Halibut

Halibut size

At their biggest halibut be substantially larger than the fish pictured above.

Halibut can grow to absolutely enormous sizes. The world record halibut was caught in Alaska in 1996 by Jack Tragis. It was over nine feet long and weighed 459lbs. In 2008 a 443lb, 8ft Halibut was caught in Norwegian waters by Soren Beck, and in 2015 Swedish man Erik Axner caught (and released) a halibut estimated at 222lb on a floatfished 4lb coalfish bait. However, there is evidence from fish caught in commercial trawls that halibut can grow to sizes substantially bigger than this. In 2013 a halibut which had been caught in Norwegian waters was imported into Hull which weighed 372lbs after its head had been cut off, meaning it would have weighed  over 400lbs as a whole fish, and was probably around 150 years old at the time of capture. However, the immense pressures on halibut stocks throughout the world mean that the vast majority of current fish will be caught long before they reach anything approaching the maximum size that this species can reach.

Greenland Halibut

There is another species of halibut found in UK waters, the Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), which is also known as the black halibut. This species is found across the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is a deepwater species usually found at depths of several hundred metres but can be found all of the way down to depths of over 2000 metres. It is much smaller than the Atlantic halibut growing to a maximum size of four feet in length. This species is also commercially valuable and is classed as a species which is unsustainably harvested by Greenpeace and have been added to their Fish Redlist.

Interesting fact: The Norwegian island of Senja is home to the worlds first, and so far only, halibut museum (Kveitmuseet in Norwegian).

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