Some of the best Maine seafood was once considered trash fish. Lobster, for example, was fed to indentured servants in the 1800s because it was a cheap source of protein. They got so tired of eating it that they took their masters to court and a law was passed limiting lobster meals to three times a week. For someone who loves to eat lobster, it is hard to imagine getting tired of it, but the dislike of lobster most likely had as much to do with its preparation as it did its frequency.

Before the advent of ice, much seafood was preserved by smoking or salting and lobster doesn’t take well to either of these, nor does it do well when cooked after it is already dead, as it was most often back then. Lobster made its first culinary advance when railroad passengers from other places arrived on the East coast and, unaware of its unsavory reputation, tried it and liked it. That led to chefs in bigger cities experimenting with cooking methods and discovering the succulent texture they could achieve by cooking lobster live. Now, it is a prized delicacy in the seafood world and a lobster meal is considered a treat.

This wasn’t the case just for lobster. Many other types of seafood also didn’t take well to the preservation methods of the 1800s and so were not popular with consumers. One of these is the somewhat majestic, but also oddly cross-eyed-looking Atlantic halibut. The Atlantic halibut lives all along the East coast from way up in Labrador down to Southern New England. Named Hypoglossus hypoglossus, Greek for “horse tongue,” its shape sort of bears a resemblance fitting to its name. They are majestic because they are one of the largest fish in the Gulf of Maine, growing up to 15 feet long and up to 700 pounds according to a record set back in 1917. The only larger fish are bluefin tuna, swordfish, and those that we often don’t even think of as “fish” — sharks.

The cross-eyed part is because they belong to a family of flatfish along with flounders that have both eyes on one side of their bodies. In a season where we watch the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies and tadpoles into frogs, you might not think of the transformation that flatfish experience. A larval halibut starts out looking like a cute, normal little fish.

But, when it is only an inch or so long, its left eye starts to move from one side of its flat body to the other. The end result is two slightly misaligned eyes on its right side (halibut are considered a right-eyed flounder). This comes in handy when a halibut shimmies itself under the sand with just its eyes sticking up above, seeking out prey. This is about as much of a halibut as you’re likely to see (if you’re lucky). Their upper side is also somewhat speckled in color like their bottom habitat, so they are not easy to spot.

While halibut was considered a trash fish in the 1800s, the advent of ice made a fresh fish market possible, and halibut became popular. But, as is often the case in fishing history, its popularity led to its demise by the early 1900s. You can learn more about the history of the halibut fishery by checking out the website of the Downeast Fisheries Trail (


As the population began to recover, strict management measures were put into place to insure the continued rebuilding of the stock. In federal waters (out past three miles from shore), the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) manages Atlantic halibut as a part of the Northeast Multispecies Plan that includes a dozen types of groundfish including cod, haddock, and a variety of other flounder species among others. Fishermen in this year-round fishery can keep one halibut per boat per trip as long as it is at least 41 inches long.

Closer to shore, there is also a halibut fishery in state waters that is managed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. This is the one that has just opened up, and why I’m writing about halibut right now as it is a great time to get local halibut. In this short season from May 1 until the end of June, fishermen use specially designed circle hooks to catch these delicious large fish.

Recreational fishermen can also land halibut from May 18 to June 13 as long as they register with the Maine Saltwater Fishing Registry ( and follow the specific rules listed there. One other neat aspect of the state fishery is that there are a couple tagging programs that help the managers track the movements of halibut in the Gulf of Maine. So, if you happen to catch a halibut with a yellow or orange tag, please let the department know. Some of these fish contain electronic tags and rewards of up to $500 are offered for their return.

Both lobster and halibut are great stories of unwanted fish turning into two of the most valuable and prized seafood items Maine has to offer. It’s all about the freshness of the catch and we are fortunate in this season to be able to get great fresh seafood that’s caught locally right along our coast.

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