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What is Halibut?

Baked halibut and vegetables with mornay sauce.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2014
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Halibut are commercially valuable food fish found in the Northern waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They have been commercially fished since the late 1890s, and are considered to be a sound choice of fish for consumers who are concerned about the depletion of fisheries and the marine environment. In addition to being available wild caught, halibut is also farmed. The remarkably ugly fish are typically cut into steaks and fillets before being sold in fresh or frozen form.

The name of the fish originates from the Middle English hali, for “holy,” since the fish was often eaten on holy and fast days. Butte meant flatfish, so halibut could be considered the “holy flatfish.” Many languages had similar words for the fish, such as the Dutch heilbot and the Danish helleflynder.

Most fish which are considered to be halibut are in the genus Hippoglossus. All true halibut are right eye flounders, meaning that they have flattened bodies with a distinctive “right” and “wrong” side. When young, they resemble regular fish, swimming through the water like salmon and other species. As they mature, their left eyes migrate to their right sides, and their right sides acquire a green, brown, or gray color, depending on which species the fish represents. The left side remains creamy white.

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Most halibut dwell close to the bottom of the ocean, along with other flatfish. They are omnivorous, eating essentially anything they can catch, and when left alone, they can attain massive sizes. Record setting specimens have been recorded at weights above 600 pounds (272 kilograms). The halibut is the largest of the flatfish, and tends to rank near the top of the food chain. Sadly, the fish are not majestic or terribly attractive to look at, with strange gaping mouths and bodies which look as though they have been run over.

The flesh is creamy white with a mildly sweet flavor. Many consumers prefer it to other fish, since it is low in fat and high in many valuable nutrients, including omega-3 acids. Unfortunately, since the fish are slow maturing, they tend to bioaccumulate heavy metals such as mercury, meaning that pregnant women and children should eat the fish in moderation.

Ecologically, halibut is an excellent choice of food fish. Fisheries that raise them are carefully managed, out of concerns for the slow maturing fish. Halibut is typically captured on baited long lines, which have a low by-catch and minimal ecological impact. Farmed fish are relatively easy to raise in a healthy and ecologically sound environment, and they can be prepared in a wide range of ways including grilling, poaching, baking, frying, and roasting.

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