Pacific Halibut

Pacific Halibut

Hippoglossus stenolepis


    Halibut, Alaskan halibut, Common halibut, Whitesided paltus


    U.S. wild-caught from Alaska to California



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Man laying next to a large Pacific halibut

The Pacific halibut is one of the largest flatfish - they can weigh up to 500 pounds and grow to over 8 feet long.


Native Americans have fished for halibut off the west coast of North America for hundreds of years. The U.S. commercial fishery started in 1888, when halibut were first landed in Tacoma, Washington. The fishery rapidly expanded, and by 1910 was operating as far north as southeastern Alaska. However, by 1914, it became clear that halibut stocks were suffering from unregulated fishing. The halibut industry petitioned the U.S. and Canadian governments to control the fishery. The United States and Canada soon signed a convention to preserve the Pacific halibut resource, enacting the first management measures for the fishery. The convention also created the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) disclaimer to study the biology of halibut and recommend regulations to sustainably manage the resource.

Halibut can be kept for a long time without spoiling, making them a popular target for commercial fishermen. In the mid-1980s, as halibut was abundant and the fishery was very profitable, more fishermen wanted a piece of the pie. As participation in the fishery grew but harvest limits stayed the same, the fishing season shrunk to just 25 days. By 1994, the season had shrunk to less than 3 days for a majority of the Alaskan fishery. When too many fishermen are fishing competitively in such a short season, the fishery produces a lot of fish, but prices are low, quality is poor, and the fishery is inefficient and extremely unsafe. To address these concerns, managers adopted an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program for the Alaska commercial longline fishery in 1995. (Canada implemented a similar program in 1991.) This program allocates a set quota of the allowed harvest to individual fishermen, allowing them the flexibility to harvest their quota within a longer season. This program effectively extended the fishing season to almost 9 months, increasing the value, safety, and efficiency of the fishery. Plus, consumers can now enjoy fresh halibut nearly year-round.

Although the Pacific halibut fishery has changed substantially over the years, the science-based management of the fishery has remained constant, sustaining this fishery for nearly 100 years. As such, it is considered to be among the best-managed sustainable fisheries in the world.

Looking Ahead

Researchers have found that size-at-age of halibut has been declining (for example, a 10-year-old fish caught several years ago was larger than a 10-year-old fish caught today). This presents challenges as managers and stakeholders try to understand not only the causes but also the need for potential changes in the harvest policy. This entails evaluating the target harvest rate and minimum size limit and understanding of the impacts of bycatch of juvenile halibut in other non-target fisheries.



Pacific halibut are found in coastal waters from Santa Barbara, California, to Nome, Alaska. They are most common in the central Gulf of Alaska, particularly near Kodiak Island. They’re also found on the other side of the Pacific, from the Gulf of Anadyr in Russia to Hokkaido, Japan.

Juveniles (1 inch and larger) live in shallow, near-shore waters off Alaska and British Columbia. Halibut move to deeper water as they age. Adults migrate seasonally from shallow summer feeding grounds to deeper winter spawning grounds.



The Pacific halibut is one of the largest flatfish – they can weigh up to about 500 pounds and grow to more than 8 feet long. Males tend to be smaller than females. Males sexually mature when they are 8 years old; females are able to reproduce by the age of 12. They spawn during the winter in deep water along the continental slope, mainly in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, and south to British Columbia. Depending on their size, females can have between 500,000 and 4 million eggs. Scientists believe females release their eggs in batches over several days during the spawning season. Eggs hatch after 12 to 15 days. The larvae slowly float closer to the surface where they remain for about 6 months until they reach their adult form and settle to the bottom in shallow water. Halibut live to be relatively old – the oldest halibut on record was 55 years old, but halibut over age 25 are rare.

Larval halibut feed on zooplankton (tiny floating organisms). Juveniles eat small crustaceans and other organisms that live on the seafloor. Adults aggressively prey on a variety of groundfish, sculpins, sand lance, herring, octopus, crabs, clams, and occasionally smaller halibut. Marine mammals and sharks sometimes eat halibut, but due to their large size, halibut are rarely preyed upon by other fish.



Pacific halibut have flat, diamond-shaped bodies. They swim sideways, and the upper side is typically mottled gray to dark brown, which helps it blend in with sandy or muddy bottoms. Their underside is typically white. Both of their eyes are on the upper side of their body. Their scales are small and buried in the skin, giving them a smooth appearance.



The International Pacific Halibut Commission has monitored halibut populations for more than 80 years. Every year, Commission scientists estimate abundance and potential yield of the Pacific halibut stock using commercial fishery data and scientific surveys. Because these surveys contain such a long historical set of data, they are considered to be robust for statistically estimating abundance.



The latest stock assessment (2013) indicated that Pacific halibut stock’s population has been declining over the last decade. The extent of the decline and reasons behind it vary by geographic area. While biomass has declined in recent years, current stock assessments estimate that future stock abundance is projected to remain near current levels. The International Pacific Halibut Commission has reduced the catch limit for 2014 by more than 3 million pounds.      



As of January 2013, the Alaska halibut fishery is monitored by fisheries observers, depending on the fishing vessel. Observers collect catch data onboard fishing vessels and at onshore processing plants. The data is used by managers and scientists in a variety of research activities, including stock assessments.

Tagging studies, using passive integrated transponder (PIT) and pop-up archival (PAT) satellite tags, have enabled managers to better understand the coastwide migration patterns of halibut. As a result, a revised coastwide harvest management strategy has replaced regional closed-area regional harvest management strategies for halibut.


Harvesting Pacific Halibut

Commercial fishermen predominantly use bottom longlines (setlines) to harvest halibut. Salmon troll gear (as bycatch), hand-lines, and jigs also are used to commercially harvest halibut. Only hook-and-line gear is allowed to target halibut. Setlines minimally impact habitat but they can unintentionally catch seabirds and other fish, including undersized halibut and other groundfish. Fishermen must use seabird avoidance devices called streamers, which effectively reduce seabird bycatch by as much as 90 percent per vessel. In general, the commercial halibut fishery is fairly selective in the fish it catches because of the size of the hook needed to harvest such a large fish – using a large hook generally reduces bycatch of smaller fish. Fishermen use circle hooks to increase catch rates, but the hooks also improve the survival of any undersized halibut caught and released during commercial fishing. To reduce bycatch of other groundfish, regulations prohibit commercial Pacific halibut fisheries in specific depths and areas off the West Coast.

Pacific halibut is a popular target for sport fishermen (see below) and an important part of many tribal cultures. Many tribal members continue to participate in commercial, ceremonial, and subsistence fisheries.

Pacific halibut are also caught in commercial fisheries targeting other species. Because halibut is a fully exploited resource, this bycatch must be returned to the sea with minimum injury. Estimates of the amount of halibut killed as bycatch have ranged from 10 to 13 million pounds coastwide since 2000. About 95 percent of bycatch occurs off Alaska in fisheries targeting groundfish. U.S. and Canadian fishery management agencies are responsible for managing halibut bycatch. In the Canadian and U.S. west coast trawl fisheries, bycatch is managed through individual bycatch quotas. In Alaska, halibut bycatch is managed with annual bycatch limits.



Who’s in charge? The United States and Canada coordinate management through a bilateral commission known as the International Pacific Halibut Commission disclaimer NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific and Pacific Fishery Management Councils are responsible for allocating allowable catch among users in the U.S. fisheries.

Current management:

International Pacific Halibut Commission:

  • Using the latest scientific information on the abundance and potential yield of the halibut stock, establishes catch limits annually for fisheries in U.S. and Canadian waters.
  • Sets the catch limits at a level that will ensure the long-term welfare of the halibut stock.
  • Catch limits for 2014 have been set at 27,515,000 pounds, a reduction of about 3,513,000 pounds from 2013. 
  • Sets the dates for the fishing season, which usually spans from March to November and is closed the rest of the year when halibut spawn.
  • The commercial fishery has a 32-inch minimum size requirement to protect juvenile halibut.

Alaska:The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is responsible for allocating the catch limits among users and user groups fishing off Alaska and developing regulations for the fishery, in line with Commission recommendations. NOAA Fisheries is responsible for implementing and enforcing these regulations. Examples of these programs include:

  • Individual fishing quota program, which allocates the total allowable catch among fishing vessels and individual fishermen. With their catch set, fishermen have the flexibility to harvest their quota anytime, creating a safer, more efficient, more valuable, and environmentally responsible fishery.
  • Community Development Quota (CDQ) Halibut Program, which allocates a percentage of the total allowable catch to eligible western Alaskan villages to allow them to participate and invest in fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and to support sustainable economic and community development in western Alaska.

West Coast: The Pacific Fishery Management Council and the NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region.

  • Establish regulations for halibut fisheries in U.S. waters off Washington, Oregon, and California. (This is known as Area 2A.)
  • The Commission sets the catch limit for halibut in this regulatory area, and the Pacific Council allocates the catch among the following user groups: non-tribal commercial (incidental salmon troll fishery, directed longline halibut fishery, and incidental longline sablefish fishery), sport, and treaty Indian commercial and ceremonial-and-subsistence.
  • The Pacific Council describes the division of halibut catch each year in the Pacific Halibut Catch Sharing Plan for Area 2A.

Annual Harvest

About 2 percent of the halibut population that can be fished is found off Oregon and Washington, about 15 percent off British Columbia, and the remainder off Alaska. U.S. commercial fishermen harvested more than 34 million pounds of Pacific halibut in 2012. About 95 percent of this harvest was landed off the coast of Alaska. 



Halibut is one of the most valuable commercial and recreational fishery resources in the North Pacific Ocean. U.S. landings were worth more than $152 million in 2012.



Halibut supports a major recreational fishery off Alaska and the West Coast. The sport fishery in Alaska is managed under daily bag and possession limits. Recreational fishermen often fish for halibut from charter (party) boats. The Alaska charter fishery now accounts for 55 percent of the total recreational harvest in Alaska. The charter fishery has more restrictive regulations to keep its harvest within the levels set by managers, including a permit system that limits the number of charter boats that can fish for halibut.

Oregon, Washington, and California have catch limits for recreational halibut fishing. The demand for halibut sport fishing is so high that closed seasons, bag limits, and possession limits are all used to control the recreational fishery and extend the season as long as possible.



The main sources for Pacific halibut are the United States and Canada. Russia also catches a small amount of Pacific halibut.

Pacific halibut is a very mild, sweet-tasting white fish. Uncooked, the meat should be almost translucent, not dull, yellowish, or dry. When cooked, the snow-white meat loses its glossy appearance and is flaky, tender, and firm. (Seafood Source) disclaimer



Frozen: year-round; fresh: March - November



Halibut is low in saturated fat and sodium and is a very good source of protein, niacin, phosphorus, and selenium.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 110
Protein 20.81 g
Fat, total 2.29 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.325 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 32 mg
Selenium 36.5 mcg
Sodium 54 mg

Pacific halibut table of nutrition