YOU THINK YOU KNOW HALIBUT: They’re big-ass flatfish that roam the depths of the Pacific. And mature specimens have that freaky habit of moving both eyes to one side of their head so they can swim along the bottom and watch for predators up above. Every March, when the regulatory season opens, they swarm fishing boats in giant schools, all but jumping right on board en masse. The fishermen go wild, flood the markets with fish, and halibut’s sweet, white flesh becomes—if only temporarily—affordable.
You’re mostly right. Except catching halibut is a much colder, more arduous process, and according to Peter Knutson, owner of Seattle-based fishing operation Loki Fish, the economics of treating March as halibut season is about 15 years outdated. The tendency to rush for spring halibut, he says, is a holdout from the days when regulatory bodies essentially ran the halibut industry as a derby—the spring season was excruciatingly short, forcing boats out for days on end, even in dangerous weather, and flooding processing plants with a glut of fish that grocers were then forced to get rid of quickly (read: cheaply).
“That was what we called ‘dump-truck fishing,’ ” says Knutson. “Now, halibut is managed a little differently.” Under the new rules, each year the International Pacific Halibut Commission looks at the strength of a given area’s halibut stock and allocates catch quotas based on what the population can support. The season runs from March to November, which means the cheap grocery store fish you jumped on two months ago wasn’t necessarily caught this year. “Halibut are migratory,” he says. “For us, it’s most efficient to catch in August and September, when they come out of the deep, into shallow waters near salmon streams, to snack on the salmon. You’ll see our halibut catch peak in late summer.”
This isn’t to suggest your spring halibut was bad—folks like Knutson and Tina Montgomery, who owns Surfin’ Seafood, a frozen seafood home-delivery service, are committed to the quality of frozen fish. “The fish we deliver goes straight to a flash freezer, where the freshness, color, and flavor are locked in,” says Montgomery. “Every minute counts.”
It’s just to say that you might have rushed for nothing.
Loki Fish (www.lokifish.com) sells halibut in summer and fall—at Ballard, University District, Columbia City, and West Seattle farmers markets, as well as right off the boat at Fishermen’s Terminal. Surfin’ Seafood (www.surfinseafood.com) delivers fresh-frozen fish, including halibut, year-round.