If you’ve spent much time fishing in New England, you’ve probably caught your share of flatfish. It can be a struggle to identify exactly what you’ve pulled out of the water, but it’s really very simple once you learn a few basic identifiers of different flatfish.
If you are struggling to tell the difference between a flounder and a halibut, the first thing you need to know is that halibuts are flounder. Flounder is a general term for flatfish. The confusion comes in because three types of flatfish are known as flounders. These are the winter flounder, the yellowtail flounder, and the summer flounder. The other two flatfish, American plaice and Atlantic halibut, are also flounders, although their name does not contain the word.
In order to identify which flounder you have caught, you need to look at the lateral line, what side the eyes are on, mouth size and tail. The winter flounder is the most commonly caught flatfish. The halibut is the least common.
The halibut is also the largest flatfish. Their eyes are on the right side of their body and they have a large mouth with cone shaped teeth. They have an arched lateral line and a concave tail. The upward facing side (which would be the right) is most often mottled a dark green and the lower side is white.
Halibut are often caught off the coasts of the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan. International agreements have been reached regarding the harvesting of halibut in order to keep the population from becoming depleted. Such care is needed because halibut do not reproduce until age 8. At this point they are usually around 30 inches long. The US and Canada have banned commercial capture of fish under this length.
Halibut fishing is a popular sport in Alaska. Sportsmen use 80 to 150 pound test line and often bait with whole herring or salmon heads. Halibut fight strenuously when exposed to the air. Smaller fish can be pulled aboard a boat and clubbed. Large fish are often shot in the water before being pulled out.
Halibut is most often served boiled, deep fried, or grilled. It is rarely smoked due to the low fat content. It has a dense and firm texture and when eaten fresh requires very little seasoning. They have always made up an important part of Alaska Natives’ diets, as well as Canadian First Nations.
The Atlantic halibut population is currently very depleted. Consumers have been recommended to avoid the Atlantic variety and seek out Pacific halibut whenever they are looking for fish. Some species of halibut are developing what is called “mushy halibut syndrome.” The meat from these fish has a less solid consistency when raw. Cooked, it falls apart instead of flaking like halibut usually does. This meat is safe to eat, though many people find it less appetizing. The exact cause is not known, but a change in the fishes’ diets is believed to be behind it.