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Halibut Fish and What Makes it Expensive

For reasons of sustainability and nutrition, halibut fish has become all the rage for seafood lovers and foodies alike. But there’s one question running through many minds: why is it so pricey? Let’s take a deeper look at halibut fish and what makes it expensive. 

Freshly-baked Halibut with Lemon

Let’s Start Getting to Know Halibut

Physiology

Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) is part of a group called ‘flatfishes,’ and this gives us a hint about how it behaves. Along with other fish like turbot, flounder, and sole, halibut is easily recognizable by its flat (laterally compressed), oval appearance—and the fact that it has both eyes on the same (typically right) side of its head! With eyes on the upper side of its body, halibut fish swim sideways. 

Pacific halibut are also one of the largest types of flatfish as they can reach weights of up to 500 pounds! They can also grow to more than eight feet long and live a pretty long life. The oldest halibut on record was 55 years old, but they’re typically harvested before then, meaning most don’t reach an age over 25 years.  

Geography

Pacific halibut are also known as Alaskan halibut and found off the West Coast of the United States, as well as near British Columbia and—not surprisingly—Alaska. In fact, they are most commonly found in the central Gulf of Alaska, close to Kodiak Island. They can also be found in the waters near Russia and Japan. Their spawning grounds are mainly in the Bering Sea, as well as the Gulf of Alaska and near the Aleutian Islands. 

Food Chain

As larvae, halibut feed on zooplankton. Once they reach one to three years old, they begin eating small fish and shelled organisms. Mature halibut are opportunistic feeders, and will slowly leave deeper waters—heading to shallow nursery areas as early as two years old. Here, they’ll eat larger fish like sablefish, rockfish, sculpins, pollock, cod, turbot, and other types of flatfish. Other types of seafood, including crabs, clams, and octopus may also be consumed. Sometimes, even smaller halibut will be eaten! 

This should make it pretty clear that halibut are close to the top of the food chain in most marine ecosystems. Deemed the “king of the Pacific,” halibut’s only predators are orca whales, sea lions, salmon sharks, sand fleas (parasitic crustaceans), and, of course, humans. 

Supply & Sustainability

That’s right, we’re one of the biggest threats to halibut, specifically Pacific halibut. In the early 1900s, we overharvested Pacific halibut. Fortunately, there are many practices and regulations in place now to prevent this from happening again. The International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) takes counts of recreational and commercial harvesting in the US and Canada in order to keep halibut populations at a good level. 

Thanks to Fishery Regulations from organizations like the IPHC as well as those enforced by the US government, wild-caught Pacific halibut are sustainably and responsibly managed, and considered to be a smart seafood choice. Not only does Pacific halibut have above target population levels, but it’s actually been on the rise since 2013! Additionally, the fishing gear utilized to harvest Pacific halibut have minimal impacts on habitat, including lower bycatch levels. 

Nutrition

Seafood is a valuable food choice for many, particularly because of all the unique nutritional benefits it provides. Unfortunately, concerns over mercury contamination and sustainability often muddy the waters, making it difficult for consumers to decide whether or not to enjoy a piece of grilled or fried seafood. 

With halibut, however—and especially Pacific or Alaskan halibut—the benefits far outweigh the concerns. Halibut is rich in micronutrients like selenium (a powerful antioxidant), magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. In fact, just a half-filet, or roughly 160 grams of halibut, can meet more than a third of one’s dietary needs for several minerals and vitamins, in addition to protein and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Taste

While it’s not as commonly consumed as, say, shrimp, salmon, tuna, and tilapia, halibut is tasty and should definitely be considered for an upcoming dinner. Halibut is a lean fish, with a taste that’s slightly sweet and mild, somewhat like tilapia. It has a firmer texture than cod, but a gentle fishy taste, meaning it can easily take on other flavors. Halibut can be pan-seared, baked, grilled, slow-roasted, and more. It’s a very delicious and versatile type of sustainable seafood

Freshly Baked Halibut

Why is Halibut Expensive?

Unfortunately, the seafood supply chain—like the food supply chain in general—can experience shocks that send prices upwards. In 2021, this has made halibut in particular more expensive. Recently, prices for halibut have risen by up to 50%, due to worker shortages, a lack of fishers, and transportation issues—all of which are coupled with an increase in demand. 

It’s important to consider that the fishing industry is still bouncing back from pandemic-related difficulties. Many involved in the industry were forced to seek other employment opportunities when demand dropped in 2020, and some of them have yet to return to fishing. While Covid paved the way for more direct trade seafood options, it may take some time to see the price tag of halibut return to “normal.”

Is Alaskan Halibut Better than Other Halibut?

Why do people seek Alaska halibut, as opposed to Atlantic halibut? Well, first off, they’re two different species. Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is also a flatfish—in fact, the largest species of flatfish. It can reach up to 15 feet long and weigh up to 700 pounds. Like its pacific relative, Atlantic halibut can also live a long life, on average around 50 years. 

However, unlike Pacific, or Alaskan halibut, the Atlantic halibut stock is overfished. Sadly, its population level is just 3% of its target level! In the US, most Atlantic halibut are found in the Gulf of Maine, where common fishing methods include trawling, which has also been associated with negative habitat impacts and bycatch. 

According to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector, Pacific (Alaskan) halibut are given the green light (the best eco-rating), while Atlantic halibut are given the red light (the worst eco-rating).

All in all, there are several benefits that come with consuming Pacific halibut. It’s tasty, healthy, and sustainable. If your stomach is howling for halibut, Alaska is the place to source it (along with tasty Alaskan salmon, of course).