My sister-in-law Allison texted me from a Los Angeles restaurant recently to ask if the Atlantic halibut on the menu was a sustainable choice. It was from Nova Scotia.

I get questions like that all the time. They make me happy because they signal that eaters are thinking about how their individual food choices play into the bigger picture.

The backstory on this particular query is that mild, sweet and meaty halibut is the only whitefish Allison really enjoys. When she has come East for the holidays, we’ve had discussions about whether it’s a sustainable choice for our family’s Christmas Eve seafood feast.

Given the time difference, I wasn’t able to get back to her before the waitress returned to take her order. Sustainable seafood question aside, she’d considered the miles the fish had traveled via fossil fuels and ran with the burger instead. But even if I’d seen the text in time, I would not have been able to give her a quick, easy answer.

Halibut is a prime example of the impermanent seascape concerning which fishes can end up in dishes deemed sustainable.

First, the eater needs to know there is both East Coast and West Coast halibut, and each stock has its own regional sustainability parameters. Armed with that information, it’s still a confusing question because old ways of counting how many fish are in the sea and new-fangled fishing gear that does less environmental damage make it difficult for nonprofits and agencies to agree on which species exist at sustainable levels and which do not.

Vegetables for Christine Burns Rudalevige’s Seize the Moment Halibut and Spring Vegetables. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch consumer guide for California lists Pacific halibut as a species eaters should avoid. But the group’s website offers a recommendation to retailers saying the Marine Stewardship Council eco-certification means Pacific halibut is a good choice. So it’s OK to buy it wholesale but not retail? Hmm.

On the East Coast, Seafood Watch tells eaters to avoid all wild Atlantic halibut because it’s overfished. Overfishing happens when fish are taken from the sea faster than a species can replenish itself. Slow-growing, large fish like halibut run a greater risk of being overfished.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has concerns regarding the status of and threats to the halibut population. Because of those, Maine has no targeted commercial fishery for halibut. In plain English, that means no commercial fishermen are allowed to go out to catch only halibut. This management plan is trying to keep catch rates low enough for the stock to be replenished by sometime after 2040.

But from May 1 to June 30, fishermen who are lobstering in state waters (defined as within three miles from mainland shores) may haul in halibut if they tag them with tags issued by the Maine Department of Marine Fisheries. And groundfishermen with permits to fish in federal waters (past the three-mile mark) are allowed to land one halibut per trip year-round as bycatch, up to the regional limit.

These halibut landings fetch a nice price for fishermen. For the first three weeks of April, the average price paid per pound for halibut at the Portland Fish Auction was $9.62, compared to $3.77 for large haddock, $3.06 for large hake, $2.05 for large pollock, and $0.76 for redfish.

To further muddy the waters, Maine fishermen disagree with the current Atlantic halibut regional catch limit, how it is allocated between fishermen working state and federal waters, and how existing management regulations are enforced, explains Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. This nonprofit group advocates for the state’s fishing communities, giving environmental and economic sustainability equal weight, and Martens recently expressed those concerns in a letter to the New England Fisheries Management Council, which is reviewing halibut quotas, regulations and enforcement.

In the letter, Martens contends that many more halibut swim in the Gulf of Maine than have been officially counted. The fishermen’s anecdotal evidence is backed up by the fact that the Marine Stewardship Council certifies the halibut fishery in the northern Gulf of Maine as a healthy one, based on biomass assessments counted by Canadian fishery regulators. Martens also argues there is not enough enforcement of halibut catch limits in state waters, which could eventually jeopardize halibut landings for fishermen at all levels in the future.

So I go back to Allison’s question: Should I eat Atlantic halibut?

Yes, says Martens. If you are in Maine, buy the local halibut while it’s in high season – between now and the end of June – but only from a reputable retail dealer or restaurateur, who, if asked, can produce the state-issued tag that proves the fish was legally caught and that its sale benefits a local fisherman and the community that surrounds him or her.

Just know that answer could change at any time.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special” (Islandport Press, May 2017). Contact her at: [email protected]

Christine Burns Rudalevige’s Seize the Moment Halibut and Spring Vegetables. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

SEIZE THE MOMENT HALIBUT AND SPRING VEGETABLES

As springtime, sustainably caught Atlantic halibut makes its way into reputable markets, so do the other vegetables in this dish. If you’ve got a fiddlehead source, add them to the mix. If you can’t find halibut, any sturdy white fish fillet (hake, black seabass, redfish) will work well. Cooking times will vary based on thickness of the fish.

Serves 4

3/4 cup minced fresh Italian parsley

Zest and juice of one lemon

1 teaspoon finely minced green garlic or garlic scapes

Olive oil

Salt

1 pound asparagus, trimmed

1 cup fresh snap peas, strings removed

4 (5-ounce) pieces of Atlantic halibut fillet

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 pound local mushrooms, sliced

Combine parsley, lemon zest and juice, garlic and 1/2 cup olive oil in a bowl. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.

Put a handful of ice cubes in a large bowl of cold water. Bring 4 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a cast iron skillet. Drop in asparagus. Cook until just tender, 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them from the boiling water to the ice water. Drop snap peas into the boiling water. Cook until bright green, 1 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them from the boiling water to the ice water. Drain vegetables. Set aside on a dry towel.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pat the fish dry with a towel. Season each piece with salt. In a cast iron pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat, place fillets with the skin side up into the hot oil. Sear fillets for 3 minutes. Turn them over. Transfer the pan to the oven, drizzle a bit more olive oil over the top and finish cooking until the middle of the fillets are opaque, 5-7 minutes. Take care not to overcook the halibut as it can dry out quickly.

While the fish bakes, melt butter in a second skillet over medium-high heat until it foams. Add sliced mushrooms and stir to coat them in fat. Just let them be until the bottom of the mushrooms start to caramelize, about 4 minutes. Add cooked asparagus, snap peas and 2 tablespoons of parsley sauce to the pan. Stir and cook until the vegetables are warmed through.

Remove the fish from the oven. Arrange vegetables on a warm serving platter. Nestle the cooked halibut into the vegetables. Drizzle remaining sauce over the fish. Serve immediately.