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What happened to the halibut?

If there was ever a poster child for overfishing, it’s the Atlantic halibut, a jumbo member of the flounder clan that can grow to upward of 400 pounds. Like cod, halibut were plentiful on the Grand Banks, Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine during Colonial times, but they weren’t considered fit to eat and were regarded by cod fishermen as a nuisance.

Fishermen faced the danger of being lost or run down in their dories by a ship in the fog.

A demand for halibut developed in the 1820s, however, and fishing for them began in earnest. The waters of Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod produced great numbers of these fish, and it is reported that four men caught more than 400 halibut in four days off Marblehead, Mass., in 1837.

By 1839, there were signs that halibut were being depleted on the near-shore grounds, so the boats moved to more distant or deeper waters. In 1875, the fishery extended to the southeast slope of Georges Bank in 100 to 200 fathoms, and not long afterward few halibut could be caught anywhere off New England. Longliners out of New England ports fished for halibut in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks until the early 1940s, when an influx of frozen Pacific halibut from the Northwest virtually put them out of business.

The Atlantic halibut never recovered in the Gulf of Maine or on Georges Bank, although the occasional fish, generally ranging from 10 to 100 pounds, is taken by both commercial and recreational fishermen. There is a limited hook-and-line fishery for them on a few small inshore grounds along Down East Maine, but biologists surmise that there just aren’t enough fish left to be able to propel the stock back to the levels of yesteryear.

See related articles:

- Fishing for perfection

- Going deep

- A look back at King Cod

- Acts of cod

- Sport fishing for groundfish

June 2013 issue