Hail mighty the halibut

Aaron
Aaron Beswick
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

It has two eyes on the same side of its head, and can live for 50 years

So sang Homer Simpson when the famous cartoon father wanted to escape the cares of the world by living under the sea. But Homer's a bit stunned.

It's dark and scary under the sea.

It's also wet and cold.

So you can't really blame us for not spending much time down there.

So sang Homer Simpson when the famous cartoon father wanted to escape the cares of the world by living under the sea. But Homer's a bit stunned.

It's dark and scary under the sea.

It's also wet and cold.

So you can't really blame us for not spending much time down there.

Consequently, we know little about some of the creatures who call that mysterious world home, despite having fished many of them for centuries.

Diane Archambeult is a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist specializing in halibut.

"It's one of the biggest species we have," she said. "But we don't know a lot about him."

Archambeult has been studying Atlantic halibut for 15 years.

Fishermen have been catching it for centuries.

Yet there are still plenty of questions about this strange and valuable bottom-dwelling predator that has two eyes on the same side of its head.

"No one knows too much about it, 'cause no one has fished it much," said Anchor Point small boat fisherman Lawrence Genge. "Seems like they're in shoal water when the caplin comes around, usually later in June, and I suppose they moves off in the fall."

The life cycle of the halibut is similar to that of most fish.

The adults come to shallow water in the winter where the female lays her eggs to be fertilized by males.

The eggs rest on the seabed until they develop into larvae that feed on zooplankton or the smaller larvae of shrimp.

After a year the larvae have grown into fish, albeit tiny ones that closely resemble adult halibut in all but one important way: they have an eye on both sides of their head.

"This is the same for all flat fish - why their eye moves over to the other side is a question of thousands of years of evolution," said Archambeult.

"But by the time the halibut reaches 40 centimetres long, the eye has shifted over so both eyes are looking up as it swims along the ocean floor. It fits its lifestyle as a bottom-dweller."

Then it grows and grows and grows - at first feeding on shrimp, crab and small herring and caplin.

As its teeth grow larger, along with its appetite, it picks on bigger fish such as cod and other young halibut.

"Once it's over 60 cm long it doesn't have many natural predators other than orca and seals," said Archambeult.

"They have a lot of big teeth to injure their prey."

Genge knows about big halibut.

In June 2008, he and Garfield Caines were hauling up one of their lines of baited hooks when a 400-pound Atlantic halibut breached the surface.

"Was strange to see something like that," said Genge.

"I don't know where this one came from. We were only fishing in 12-13 fathoms of water, getting 20- to 80-pound fish."

As halibut grow larger they move off from the land, patrolling deeper water. Fishermen can roughly gauge the size of fish they will catch with their hooks by picking their depth.

Fish plants prefer smaller fish - from 10 to 12 years old - because the quality is judged to be better.

"Bigger fish, their flesh is dryer and more flaky," said Archambeult. "It is tasty but doesn't have the same texture as the fish from 80 to 100 cm."

Halibut live up to 50 years, and while most large ones have their stomping grounds, some are known to travel long distances.

"In the 1950s, a halibut was tagged north of Anticosti Island and seven years later was found near Faroese Islands off Iceland," said Archambeult.

"It can swim very rapidly for a long distance. Most of the time the smaller fish seem to migrate longer distances."

For the past 10 years, DFO and the Fish, Food and Allied Workers' union have been conducting tagging programs to learn more about the Atlantic halibut.

Genge has seen a steady increase in his landings over the past three years.

"We only get to fish for two or three days but it's been gradually getting better every year - last year we had 3,000 pounds."

There's a very short fishing season, but considering it's the most valuable groundfish - about $2 per pound this year - fishermen go hard when they have the chance.

"You've got your 11 tubs with lines of 80 baited hooks," said Genge. "You start in the morning and bait and haul, bait and haul until dark. You fish as hard as you can in them three days."

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Homer's, Allied Workers

Geographic location: Anchor Point, Anticosti Island, Faroese Islands Iceland

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments