It’s a great time for seafood lovers. March marked the beginning of Pacific halibut season, featuring this delicious, sustainable Ocean Wise fish in ample supply.
“It’s an incredibly versatile fish, which is one of the reasons I love it so much,” says YEW seafood and bar’s Executive Chef Ned Bell, who couldn’t be happier to have fresh halibut back on the menu this season.
The Pacific halibut fishery closes from November to March because that’s when the halibut spawn. YEW, at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, tries to be the first restaurant in town to serve halibut when the season opens every year. On that day in early March, Ned likes to make a show of bringing the spectacular white fish into the dining room from the front entrance and carving it up.
Teddie Geach, the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise account representative for Western Canada, was one of the first to sample YEW’s 2014 halibut this year, and she’s on board with Bell’s enthusiasm. “Chefs play a really important role in educating people about the food that they’re eating,” says Teddie.
And Pacific halibut is a good news story. Its supply is extremely well-managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), a joint team of Americans and Canadians that dates back to 1923.
Halibut can reach 500 lbs. Males mature around eight years old, while females aren’t fully mature until they’re about 12. “The larger the female is, the more eggs she will produce,” says Teddie, who notes that a 250 lb. fish could potentially turn out four million eggs per year. That’s what Ocean Wise calls a “highly fecund” female.
A bottom-dwelling flatfish, Pacific halibut are typically found on the continental shelf, preferring temperatures that range from 3 to 8 degrees C. Their natural habitat ranges from the Bering Sea down to the waters off northern California.
They have a moderate life span, compared to some species of sturgeon, which live to be well over 100 years old. Still, the oldest halibut recorded made it to the age of 55.
“That’s pretty old for a fish,” says Teddie.
Off B.C. shores, halibut is primarily caught using bottom long lines that are baited, weighted hooks set along the bottom of the sea floor. Unlike bottom trawls, this sustainable method avoids destroying the essential habitat of other species.
Each year, the IPHC conducts stock assessments to estimate the overall abundance of halibut and recommends a total allowable catch. In 1991, Canada implemented an Individual Vessel Quota System (IVQ) where each fishing vessel is allocated a portion of the overall fishing quota to prevent overfishing.
In 2011, the IPHC concluded that 144 million tons of Pacific halibut could be extracted from the ocean without threatening the species’ sustainability.
Delighted chefs and fish fans welcome Pacific halibut in countless guises, whether it appears as tender, scallop-like cheeks or battered, in fish’n’chips.
“It’s an outstanding fish, flavour-wise,” Ned explains. “It’s local to the West Coast and its quality is second to none. It’s white, dense, meaty, flaky and lean. It’s like a sponge; it soaks up flavour and adapts well to any kind of cuisine, from Asian to French to Indian. It also smokes and cures well and makes a great ceviche.”
Overfishing is the biggest issue facing our oceans today. Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program works with chef, restaurant, retail and market partners across Canada to provide sustainable seafood options for consumers. Look for the Ocean Wise symbol next to a seafood item for Vancouver Aquarium’s assurance of an ocean-friendly seafood choice.