Is there such a thing as death by halibut?

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Dear Cecil: I grew up in Alaska and I’ve heard this story forever, including when I worked on a salmon fishing boat for two summers. It’s the claim of a sometimes lethal danger to fishermen posed by a large halibut landed on deck but not yet dead. According to the story, a flopping halibut broke a commercial fisherman’s leg in two places, causing him to bleed to death on deck because he was alone and couldn’t crawl to the wheelhouse and radio for help. I’ve landed fairly large halibut; they are hard to kill, apparently due to a small brain and its odd position, and they flop suddenly and unpredictably long after you think they’re deceased. But I can’t find anything definitive about deaths or serious injury to fishermen from landed halibut. Want to wrestle with this one? Wei Ji


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

As sea creatures go, you don’t think of halibut as being all that dangerous. Other aquatic denizens, sure. Sharks, barracudas, stingrays, jellyfish, sea urchins, octopuses, squid, moray eels, piranha, our little friend the candiru … these are names that justly inspire dread. The halibut, no. The only weaponry you figure to need with a halibut is a fork and some tartar sauce. When a halibut confronts its prey, do you think it says, “I am Halibut. Fear me”? No, because fish can’t talk. But even if they could, a halibut wouldn’t say this, because it knows it’s in the peewee leagues of perceived marine ferocity.

You should fear the halibut just the same, as one would rightly fear anything that’s huge, powerfully muscled, and prone to thrashing when pulled into your boat. Some halibut weigh more than 400 pounds and have to be killed by beating them over the head with a club. This is best done surreptitiously. If instead you do it on your reality TV show like Sarah Palin before the shocked eyes of animal rights activists, you’re going to take some heat.

Native Americans, now, they understood halibut. The Tsimshian tribe of the Pacific Northwest has a tale of a monster halibut that ate an entire canoe, along with the prince and two princesses who were aboard. Bent on revenge, a two-man suicide team paddled out to face it and also got eaten. However, they succeeded in gutting the fish from the inside before expiring, ultimately resulting in the giant halibut dying too. So, just like the ending of Hamlet, only with a fish.

As for the tragic tale recounted above, it’s no fish story. In August 1973 the Juneau Empire reported that a solitary Alaska fisherman had indeed been killed by a halibut. Joseph T. Cash, 67, caught a 150-pound specimen near Kupreanof Island and succeeded in hauling it aboard. In the process, though, the flailing fish evidently broke his leg, severing an artery and sending Cash crashing to the deck, cracking three ribs. Though mortally injured, the stubborn fisherman managed to lash himself to the boat’s winch to avoid falling overboard. He was later found there when the boat washed ashore — and by God, he still had his fish.

This incident illustrates a stark fact: halibut fishing is dangerous. Commercial fishing in general is one of the riskiest occupations in the country, with a death rate 32 times the average for U.S. workers. Crab and other shellfish are the most dangerous critters to go after, as fans of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch may know — Alaska shell fishermen perish at more than 90 times the U.S. rate.

Sport fishing is less lethal. Nonetheless, horrifying reports surface from time to time, many emanating from Florida and the south Atlantic, which seemingly teem with angry, bitter fish. For example:

  • A Florida teenager suffered serious injuries to her vocal cords after a houndfish attacked her, leaping out of the water and driving its needle-sharp bill into her neck, just missing her carotid artery.
  • A Florida spearfisher, diving without a tank, drowned when a goliath grouper he shot took off at high speed, wrapping the line around his wrist and dragging him to the bottom. His body was found still tethered to the fish.
  • Sturgeon leaping from the water have injured yet more Floridians. In 2006 a sturgeon knocked one person overboard and broke the arm of another when it jumped over their boat. According to a news report, it was the sixth sturgeon attack that summer.
  • Finally, sport-fishing-boat crewman Ian Card was lucky to escape with his life after being impaled by an 800-pound blue marlin near Bermuda. He was carried overboard when the fish, which had been hooked by a passenger, leaped over the boat, spearing him in midflight. Amazingly, Card pushed himself off the marlin’s spike and made it to the surface despite a fist-sized hole in his chest. Rescuers sensibly cut the marlin loose, but mindful of Joseph T. Cash, The Old Man and the Sea, etc, I imagine many old-school anglers thought: What, you couldn’t hang onto the damn fish?

Cecil Adams

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