California Halibut

California Halibut, Paralichthys californicus

The California Halibut, Paralichthys californicus, whose common Spanish name is lenguado californiano, is a member of the Sand Flounder or Paralichthyidae Family, known collectively as lenguados areneros in Mexico. Globally, there are twenty one members of the genus Paralichthys, six of which are found in Mexican waters, three in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific. All family members are left-eyed fish and have either a straight or an arched lateral line.

The California Halibuts have elongated oval deep bodies with a depth that is 47 to 51% of standard length. Approximately 60% of the population are left-eyed. I have observed in limited sampling, that right-eyed fish have diminished body depths versus left-eyed fish. Their eye side is greenish-brown to black with a combination of dark and light mottling and spotting. Their fins have a uniform color, similar to the body color, but without spotting or markings. Their blind side is off-white to tan. They have a short pointed head with a relatively large mouth that ends under the rear edge of their lower eye. Their eyes are relatively small and set apart with the top eye being slightly behind the lower eye. They have one row of teeth on both jaws with large canines in the front. They have 49 to 59 anal rays and 66 to 76 dorsal rays. Their dorsal fin begins over the upper eye. Their caudal fin is small, short, wide, and significantly doubly concave (a key to quick identification). They have 25 to 32 gill rakers. Their eye side is covered with rough scales and their blind side with smooth scales. Their lateral line is arched and extends onto the head and branches toward the top eye and below the lower eye.

The California Halibuts are bottom dwellers found near structures over and within sandy and muddy bottoms at depths up to 1,040 feet. They are also known to enter brackish waters. They reach a maximum length of 1.52 meters (5 feet 0 inches) and a maximum weight of 33 kg (72 pounds). They are opportunistic and well-camouflaged ambush predators that lie in wait half submerged on the ocean floor. They consume crustaceans, anchovies, grunions, sardines, and other small fish. Females and males have lifespans of up to 30 years and 23 years, respectively; females are also larger than males. Fossil remains have dated the California Halibut to the Miocene Period, 5.3 million years ago.

In Mexican waters the California Halibuts have a limited distribution being found from Todos Santos northward along with southwest, central and northwest coasts of the Baja. The southerly limit was established by a fish in my possession. There is also an isolated population in the extreme north of the Sea of Cortez, documented by the fish photographed below, and there are reports that this species is also found south off Rocky Point, also in the northern Sea of Cortez.

The California Halibut can be confused with the Cortez Halibut, Paralichtys aestuarius (broad head profile, no spots on its body, smaller wide fan-like caudal fin that is not doubly concave) and the Dappled Founder, Paralichtys woolmani (less than 20 gill rakers).

The California Halibut are considered to be an exceptional food fish and a favorite of Native Americans. They are sold commercially which includes the sale of live fish in Southern California ethic markets. The demand has caused significant overfishing by both commercial fishermen (annual catches of up to 1,000 tons via gillnets and otter trawls) and recreational anglers (up to 300,000 caught per annum) and they are now a highly regulated and considered to be an endangered species. Their viability has also been negatively affected by decline and destruction of coastal wetlands removing access to freshwater and brackish marshes.

California Halibut, Paralichthys californicus, right eyed, juvenile. Fish caught off the beach at Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, July 2016. Length: 22 cm (8.7 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Ben Cantrell, Peoria, IL.

California Halibut (1)

California Halibut (2)

California Halibut, Paralichtys californicus, left eyed. Fish provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, December 2009. Length: 41 cm (16 inches).

California Halibut (4)

California Halibut, Paralichtys californicus, right eyed. Fish provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, July 2010. Length: 43 cm (17 inches).

California Halibut, Paralichtys californicus, left eyed. Fish caught from coastal waters off San Felipe, Baja California, January 2014. Catch and photo courtesy of John Laine, San Felipe.

California Halibut, Paralichthys californicus, right eyed. Fish provided by the commercial fishermen of Bahía Kino, Sonora, March 2015. Length: 31 cm (12 inches). Photo courtesy of Maria Johnson, Prescott College Kino Bay Center, Kino Bay, Sonora.

California Halibut, Paralichthys californicus, left eyed and right eyed. Three fish caught in coastal waters off Santa Rosalito, Baja Califonia, September 2015. Catches and photo courtesy of Barry Mastro, Escondido, CA.

California Halibut, Paralichtys californicus, left eyed, deformed. Fish provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, January 2013. Length: 38 cm (15 inches).

f366-california-halibut-11California Halibut, Paralichthys californicus, right eyedFish caught from coastal waters off Santa Cruz, California, May 2014. Length: 71 cm (28 inches).  Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Andrew Hansen, Santa Cruz, California.