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. There are twenty one global members of the Paralichthys Genus of which three are found in Mexican waters of the Atlantic and three in Mexican waters of the Pacific.

The California Halibuts are left-eyed and right-eyed flat fish with an arched lateral line that extends onto their head and branches toward their top eye and below their lower eye. They have elongated oval deep bodies with a depth that is 47 – 51% of standard length. Approximately 60% of the population is 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.

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 152 cm (60 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. They have a limited distribution and have been found along the northwest and west coasts of the Baja, south to at least Todos Santos with the southerly limit 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 photo below, and there are reports that this species is found south of Rocky Point, also in the northern Sea of Cortez. Fossil remains have dated the California Halibut to the Miocene Period, 5.3 million years ago.

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 endangered species. Their viability has also been negatively affected by decline and destruction of coastal wetlands removing access to fresh water and brackish marshes.

California Halibut (1)

California Halibut (2)

California Halibut, Left Eyed, Paralichtys californicus: Provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, December 2009. Length: 41 cm (16 inches). This fish documents a southerly range extension for this species.
California Halibut, Left Eyed, Paralichtys californicus: Provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, December 2009. Length: 41 cm (16 inches). This fish documents a southerly range extension for this species.

California Halibut (4)

California Halibut, Right Eyed, Paralichtys californicus: Provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, July 2010. Length: 43 cm (17 inches).
California Halibut, Right Eyed, Paralichtys californicus: 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: Fish caught 12 miles south of San Felipe, in the Northern Sea of Cortez, January 2014, on a light colored splittail lead head scampi tipped with Rock Bass out of 25-foot water. Catch and photo courtesy of John Laine.
California Halibut, Paralichtys californicus: Fish caught 12 miles south of San Felipe, in the Northern Sea of Cortez, January 2014, on a light colored splittail lead head scampi tipped with Rock Bass out of 25-foot water. Catch and photo courtesy of John Laine.
California Halibut, Deformed, Paralichtys californicus: Provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, January 2013. Length: 38 cm (15 inches).
California Halibut, Deformed, Paralichtys californicus: Provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, January 2013. Length: 38 cm (15 inches).