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October 26, 2001

California or Pacific Halibut?

Some halibut can be either right-eyed or left-eyed.

Q: On a fishing trip out of Southern California, my husband and I each caught about a 3-foot halibut. My husband says his fish was a Pacific halibut because the eyes were on the right side, and that my halibut had to be a California halibut because the eyes were on the left side. Other than the difference in the eyes, however, both fish looked the same to me. Both were dark brown on top, with a slight pattern, white underneath, and had an arch in the lateral line over the pectoral fin. Does having the eyes on different sides make them separate species, or can one species have eyes on either side? - Mrs. Ed Ehrlich, Las Vegas, Nevada

A: Either way. You might have caught a Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) and a California halibut (Paralichthys californicus), as your husband suggests, but if the two fish really looked just alike, you might have caught two California halibut instead. While Pacific halibut - members of the right-eyed flounder family, Pleuronectidae - are almost always right-eyed, California halibut - in the left-eyed flounder family, Bothidae - may be either left-eyed or right-eyed. One of the most obvious differences between the two is in the fins: Look for a straight or slightly indented center on the rear margin of the Pacific halibut's tail fin, and two indentations on the rear margin of the California halibut's tail fin, one above and one below the slightly rounded central portion.
Both fish inhabit the same general area. The California halibut, which grows to about 5 feet and 33 pounds, can be found from Washington to Baja California on sandy bottoms from near shore out to about 600 feet of water. The Pacific halibut, reaching nearly 9 feet and more than 500 pounds, ranges from Alaska to Southern California from near shore to about 3,600 feet.