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Halibut's big moment

Wild salmon may be scarce this season, but Pacific halibut is plentiful and fabulous, with fine texture and delicate, nuanced flavor. You just have to treat it right.

April 19, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

SEAFOOD lovers who have been following the news know that it's probably going to be a long spring. Salmon, the king of the season's fish, is missing in action and its prices are likely to stay high through the summer.

But as momma used to say, there's never a door that closes without a window opening somewhere else. This season's silver lining is Pacific halibut, which, thanks to that shortage might finally get its moment in the spotlight.

And halibut is a fish with charms all its own. While salmon is rich and assertive, halibut is mild-mannered. Other flavors have to stand up to salmon, but they fall in love with halibut, making it an ideal match for the quieter pleasures of spring.

Like salmon, halibut is available pretty much year-round, but is at its best in spring and summer (in seafood, "seasonal" means something different than when you're talking about, say, English peas). The fish are highly migratory, and beginning in mid-March they move from the deep ocean to shallower coastal waters to feed (salmon are taken during the same time as they gather offshore before making their spawning runs up streams).

Halibut is a flat fish, like a flounder or a sole, and it shares their fine-textured flesh. Its main distinguishing feature is size. Halibut are huge. This is a fish so big its Latin genus Hippoglossus could just as well be "hippopotamus." Adult halibut can be up to 9 feet long and can weigh up to 700 pounds. Compare that to a monster king salmon, which at 50 to 60 pounds suddenly doesn't seem quite so regal. (There is also a California halibut that sometimes shows up at market that is much smaller -- a big one would weigh 10 pounds.)

Halibut's fine, close-grained flesh turns a dramatic snowy white when cooked. Its flavor, though not as aggressive as oilier fish such as salmon and mackerel, is sweet with a warm, herbal bottom note almost like bay.

Even better, you can feel like a really good person when you're cooking it. The halibut fishery is regarded as an ecological model. It is rated a "best choice" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.

Salmon's low census

SALMON prices are rising because the organization that regulates fishing on the West Coast drastically cut back salmon fishing in California and Oregon after the fish population plummeted, due to low water levels in the Klamath River, one of the prime salmon runs in the Northwest.

Although most of the big-name salmon comes from Alaska (Copper River, Kenai, Yukon, etc.), the catch in California and Oregon plays a vital supporting role. In fact, according to National Marine Fisheries Service landing statistics, those two states accounted for almost half of the king salmon harvest from 2000 until the catch started being more tightly controlled in 2004.

California-Oregon salmon are almost always the more affordable fish that we eat most often: $10 to $12 a pound rather than the $20 to $30 a pound appellation-labeled once-a-season splurge. But this spring, one seafood distributor predicts, $20 a pound might be as cheap as wild salmon gets.

Meanwhile, halibut is an example of how sound management can turn around an ugly situation. Until the mid-1990s, the fishery was usually used as an example of just how badly managed commercial fishing could be. In fact, in the 1970s, it was so awful that it was on the brink of a closure. Unfortunately, the controls implemented to protect the fish in some ways merely aggravated a bad situation. Until the mid-1990s, halibut fishing was regulated under what was called a "derby" system. There was a seasonal allotment of how much fish could be caught in each area. On a given day, a bell would ring (literally, in some places) and dozens of fishing boats would race out to scoop up as much as they could, as fast as they could. Sometimes, the total allotment for an area would be caught in less than 10 hours.

The results were predictable. The halibut fishery was among the most dangerous in the world, as overloaded boats struggled to return home in the choppy, icy waters of the north Pacific. It didn't work for the consumer either, as the limit was reached so quickly that for all but the briefest of spans, the only halibut we could buy was frozen.

In 1991, the Canadians went to a different system, allocating each boat a percentage of the limit, depending on how much it had caught in the past. This system closed the door to new fishermen unless they bought an existing boat's share. But it allowed an orderly, safer catch. In 1995, the U.S. introduced a similar system. Now, instead of having fresh halibut for only a couple of weeks in the year, the season stretches from early spring through the summer. This is good news for fishermen and cooks.

If you're used to cooking salmon, though, halibut can take some getting used to. While salmon is fatty and assertive, halibut is lean and mild. It takes some time to overcook salmon; with halibut it can happen before you know it.

Cook carefully

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