East vs. West: Battle Halibut


Halibut is one of my very favourite fish to work with. The firm, meaty flesh is versatile and stands up to many cooking techniques, the mild taste is beautiful on it’s own, but can carry stronger flavours equally well, and being a flatfish, it’s particularly easy to bone and fillet.

Atlantic (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) and Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) are technically two separate species, with the Pacific fish growing very slightly larger, but the meat is so similar in texture and taste that for cooking purposes, they are interchangeable.

The main differences in Pacific and Atlantic halibut seem to be twofold: stewardship, and usage.
In very broad terms, the Atlantic stock is well below sustainable levels, due largely to overfishing. It is more acceptable to use halibut caught via hook-and-line than trawler caught, and harpooned is better still.
The Pacific fishery has been better managed and so the West Coast halibut is not endangered. These two websites provide an excellent source of information on sustainability and making informed choices:
Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Atlantic market halibut are much smaller than their Pacific counterparts resulting in larger fillets and steaks on West Coast fish counters. Interestingly, I have found the prices to be higher for halibut out here.

Me, filleting halibut in the Yukon, 2000.
Me, filleting halibut in the Yukon, 2000.
Atlantic halibut, ready to fillet at home, 2013.
Atlantic halibut, ready to fillet at home, 2013.

Usage varies on each coast: Halibut is in much more common usage out here in things like fish and chips, fish tacos, and wraps. On the Atlantic side, you’d never see halibut used for casual fare (even pre-stock depletion); certainly not in fish & chips where cod is king (or more commonly in NS, haddock). On the East Coast, halibut is usually served (when offered at all) in more upscale entrees–perhaps poached, or pan seared, and never deep fried.

If this was Battle FOR Halibut, the West would win based on superior conservation efforts; efforts that I’m not sure aren’t based on lessons learned from the East Coast. But this is Battle Halibut, and based on taste, this one’s a draw.

You can find one of my favourite halibut recipes in a blog post from last year: Blackened Halibut Chowder. Bon Appetit!


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