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Today (March 3rd) is World Wildlife Day! Initially I was going to write about a charismatic mammalian species like the magnificent Siberian tiger or the mountain tapir, but then it occurred to me that I should write about a predator which is larger than the tiger and ranges farther than the tapir, yet which humankind regards with contempt (if we think about it at all). Behold the magnificent Atlantic halibut, the largest of the flatfish.

The Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is a mighty predator of the North Atlantic. They range from Iceland and Greenland down to the Bay of Biscay and Virginia. These fish are capable of reaching a length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and can weigh more than 320 kg (710 lb). Like other flatfish, Atlantic halibut are lurking benthic predators which snap up unwary prey animal, however, unlike many of the other flounder species (which sometimes swim awkwardly due to asymmetric bodies), Atlantic halibut are strong swimmers capable of lengthy migrations and real speed. Just look at how different their tail is from other flatfish. Although they are not absolute apex predator of their habitat (which is also inhabited by orcas, sperm whales, and great white sharks), halibut prey on some pretty substantial animals such as cod, haddock, herring, pogge, lobsters, large crabs, and various cephalopods.

Atlantic halibut larva (greatly magnified)

Although it rarely happens today, in our world of rampant overfishing, Atlantic halibut can live to be more than half a century in age. When they spawn, the female fish lay up to 4 million eggs (!) which hatch after 16 days. The tiny larvae (above) are almost transparent and they spend about a year among the zooplankton, gorging on microscopic algae, eggs, and tiny invertebrates until they are large enough to undergo the strange metamorphose into adulthood. Once they attain sufficient age and size, one of their eyes migrates across their skull to the other side of their head (they are right-facing flounder, by the way) and the back/bottom side of the fish becomes white and pale. Young halibuts are pale gray and brown with little pebble-like spots, but as they age they turn into a uniform sable color (on the upward facing part of their body, I mean). They are among the largest teleosts–although sunfish can grow much larger.

As you can see, Atlantic halibut are impressive fish. Yet, when I was growing up they were mostly known as the source of discount fish sticks or as something to fry when the cod was all out. Because they are commercially valuable (and delicious), they have been overfished to such a degree that they were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 1996. Commercial fishermen also used to catch these halibut with bottom trawls–an ecologically devastating method of fishing which ravages the bottom of the ocean and creates far more bycatch (“accidental bystander fish” which are thrown back into the ocean dead) than actual catch. Ecologists have compared bottom trawling to dyamiting a forest to hunt squirrels.

Regular readers know that I religiously draw flatfish after flatfish (here, check out my Instagram profile and see for yourself). I get the feeling that it greatly perplexes most people (even though I have previously tried to explain) and, even now, I suspect that there are readers who wonder why I am featuring a “food fish” for World Wildlife Day rather than a tiger, falcon, or killer whale or something. For one thing, I think there are many things which are legitimately beautiful, special, and amazing about flounder. Their hunting, and camouflage abilities impress me as much as their non-bilateral symmetry (which is unique in the vertebrate world). The flounders are taxonomically much more diverse and widespread than say, primates. They are also a great symbol of the living oceans–a sort of avatar of the primordial depths which we never really know (no matter how many frogmen, minisubs, and trawlers we send down there). Of course they are also our victims–and we kill them literally by the boatload to make money and feed and amuse ourselves.

Flounder also have a tragicomic mien which I find deeply compelling: they are both the comedy and the tragedy mask at the same time. Their sad, hungry grimace and weirdly knowing google eyes perfectly encapsulate the ambiguities of being alive (there is a reason that use of the word “floundering” leaped off of the charts during our annus horribilis in 2020). But in the end, it strikes me that life itself is floundering as humans desperately use up more and more of the planet’s resources. As much as I would love to live in a giant money shower like Wylan or Ed Hardy, somehow killer whales and tigers do not scream “victim” the same way that flounders do…and it is impossible not to conclude that that is exactly what the natural world is screaming right now.

Apollo and the Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

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