Farming Atlantic halibut: a tough job, but worth it

Published on
September 30, 2015

While the Pacific halibut, Hippoglossus stenolepis features on what to eat lists as a sustainable choice, and some longline fisheries for this fish even enjoy MSC status, Atlantic halibut, Hippoglossus hippoglossus, is at the other end of the scale and is a definite no-go choice, unless it is farmed.

However, farming halibut is not an easy task, as Alastair Barge (pictured), MD of Otter Ferry Seafish in Scotland can testify; he has spent the past 25 years dedicated to producing these slow-growing fish at his onshore hatchery on the banks of Loch Fyne. Alastair admits that it took him a lot longer than anticipated to crack challenges including male-to-female ratios and getting the first juvenile feeding stage right, but he is now producing regular quantities of market sized fish.

“It’s a definite labor of love!” said Barge.

“From egg to juvenile fish takes around four months, during which time they need to be carefully nurtured, then it takes a further 3 to 4 years before they reach market size, of 3 to 5kg or 5 to 7kg. Halibut need to be kept at the right temperature, provided with a special diet, and protected from sunburn. These are not easy fish to produce!” he explained.

The fish are fed an organic diet, using 100 percent fish trimmings as a source of fish meal, although cannot be sold as certified fish as there are currently no accredited organic standards for halibut.

In 2006, the tiny community-owned Island of Gigha, which sits in the Atlantic Ocean off the West Coast of Scotland, was identified as a suitable site to ongrow the fish in large pump-ashore tanks, and since 2007 the company has been selling whole Atlantic halibut year round to wholesalers who supply high-end restaurants.

“Chefs love the fact that they can confidently put our farmed halibut on their menus, as a sustainable alternative to wild,” said the company’s marketing executive Amanda Anderson.

A few years ago, one of the hatchery workers smoked some halibut in his home smoker, and the result was such a success, the company sought out a local artisan smoker and started experimenting with a new product.

“We tried many different cures, but the best results came from smoking the halibut over whisky barrel chips from the Kilchoman distillery on Islay, which have quite a distinctive peaty flavor,” said Anderson.

“Today, we work with Ruari Murray of Murray Smoked Products. He spends a lot of time in the background while we promote our brand, but he is one of our heroes in our story,” she said.

Fish is smoked to order, vacuum packed and dispatched direct to the customer. This product is fast becoming a chefs’ favorite, but is also available for home delivery customers.

At the Waterside Inn in Bray, one of the few 3 Michelin star restaurants in the United Kingdom, Gigha smoked halibut is a regular feature on the menu.

“I am a complete convert to this beautiful smoked fish. It not only has a really great taste but it is visually appealing too,” said Alain Roux.

Earlier this month, smoked Gigha halibut was awarded three stars, the highest accolade in the United Kingdom’s Great Taste Awards, featured in the Top 50 Foods list, and won the Golden Fork for Scotland, which denotes this fish as the finest Scottish product out of 10,000 entries to the 2015 awards.

James Withers, CEO of Scotland Food & Drink, which sponsors the Golden Fork award, personally congratulated the company.

“It is fantastic that Gigha Halibut won the award for Best Scottish Speciality. Food and drink is now a national success story for Scotland and winning this accolade over thousands of other entries is a massive and well-deserved achievement for the business,” he said.

Great Taste, which ignores branding and packaging and concentrates solely on taste, is judged by over 400 food critics, chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, producers and a host of food writers and journalists. It is widely acknowledged as the most respected food accreditation scheme for artisan and specialty food producers.

“We know our product is delicious, but to have that verified by esteemed judges through such a tough process has given us the credibility and the boost we needed to widen our appeal. It’s wonderful to be told you taste great by the country’s finest palates!” said Anderson.

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