Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:18 PM on Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Halibut, halibut ... holy (really) halibut

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Angela Krzykowski, above, left, poses with Capt. Ben Martin, right, and her 310.6-pound fish caught July 28.

Ever wonder how the halibut got its name?

About 500 years ago, every flatfish — from flounder to skate — was called a "butt" in Europe, a possible reference to the fish's stubby nature. The largest butts were halibut. Since the fish was only eaten on church holy days, it was singled out as the "holy butt." Although now enjoyed by diners around the world seven days a week, it has become known as the "halibut" or "holy flounder."

Its scientific name is a bit more complicated, but equally informative: Hippoglossus stenolepis, derived from the Greek hippo (horse), glossa (tongue), steno (narrow) and lepis (scale).

That was one of many halibut facts offered during a Kachemak Bay Research Reserve Discovery Lab at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center July 13, 15 and 16.

It's a suitable topic in a city that markets itself as "the halibut fishing capital of the world." Try a Google search for "halibut" plus "Homer, Alaska" and you'll get more than 400,000 results, including links to local commercial and sport fishing operations, the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, restaurant menus and cookbooks, clothing designs, artwork and much, much more.

With Carmen Field, marine science educator for the research reserve, and her staff receiving "lots of really great questions (about halibut) and we couldn't answer all of them," a lab focusing on halibut seemed like a good idea. Curtis Hightower, one of two summer interns with the reserve, took on the job of gathering material.

"He's been commercial fishing up here for some years. This is a new position for him and he spent a lot of effort pulling information together, coming up with hands-on activities and visuals," said Field.

For two hours on each of the lab's three days, hundreds of curious individuals took advantage of the result. Spread across eight tables were charts, photos, posters, stories, jars and tanks. There were art materials for youngsters to "make" a halibut. There was a table covered with cookbooks and recipes. The biggest attraction was the halibut stomach in which gloved guests could poke around to discover what halibut eat.

"(Hightower) and our other intern (Ericka Augustyn) went out to the Spit before each of the labs, got halibut stomachs, and didn't know what would be in them," said Field of what lab guests were allowed to uncover. "One stomach contained a big octopus beak, so it had to have been a good-sized halibut. The same one also had eaten a skate. On (July 15), we found decorator crabs. On (July 16), we had two stomachs, one with nothing in it and the other with crabs."

Here are a few other facts the lab, funded by the Alaska Division of Sport Fish, offered.

• Halibut grow about three inches a year. Female halibut grow faster than male halibut.

• Male halibut mature at about 8 years old. Females mature at about 12 years.

• Egg production depends upon the halibut's size. A 50-pound female can produce more than 500,000 eggs, while a 250-pound female produces about four million eggs in a year.

• Eggs are spawned at depths of 600-1,000 feet, along the edge of the continental shelf during winter months, with the height of spawning activity occurring between December-February.

• Eggs hatch at about 15 days, with each fertilized egg forming an embryo. It drifts with deep ocean currents, rising in the water column. Each one has a yolky sac it feeds on. As the yolk is consumed, buoyancy increases and the larva floats higher toward the surface, where they feed on tiny zooplankton, riding the currents to shallow, near-shore habitats.

• Between 4-5 months, while only about an inch long, halibut undergo a major transformation as their left eye migrates across the snout to the right side of their face.

• It takes about six months for a halibut to grow from a fertilized egg to a young fish, settling on the bottom. Their appearance is so similar to a flounder that the average person can't tell who's who.

• In shallow waters, halibut eat and grow large for two-three years, finally settling into one general area, venturing from this spot only during winter spawning season and occasionally in search of food.

• The diet of adult halibut includes cod, Pollock, rockfish, sculpin, crab and other flatfish.

• Halibut are found in Alaska from the Bering Sea to the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska's inside waters.

• "Mushy halibut syndrome" has been found in 15- to 20-pound halibut in the Cook Inlet, Homer and Seward areas. It is evidenced by large areas of abnormally opaque and flaccid or jelly-like body muscle, as well as an overall poor body condition. Nutritional deficiency is the suspected culprit, possibly a lack of vitamin E and selenium. No infectious agents or parasites have been observed in affected fish, so transmission from fish to fish is unlikely. It's displeasing in appearance, but presents no known human health concern.

Field said she and her husband tried cooking some, "but it wouldn't turn into flaky fish. It just stayed mush." They didn't eat it.

• Like rings on a tree, the otolith, a small bone from the halibut's inner ear, develops annual growth rings and is used by scientists to determine a halibut's age.

"I'm not a fishery biologist and I learned a lot," said Field of information presented at the Discovery Lab. "I'm sure we'll do it again, but I don't know when. It'll be on the list of things to consider."