The Most Common Types of Groundfish in British Columbia Waters
With so many species of fish living in BC waters, there is something to fish for at practically any time of year. In addition to the highly sought-after pacific salmon and freshwater trout, another extremely popular type of fish that draws anglers to our region is groundfish.
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What are Groundfish?
The term groundfish refers to an extremely broad category of fish species that live and feed near or on the bottom of the lake, river, or ocean in which they inhabit. Groundfish are sometimes also referred to as bottom feeders, or “demersal” fish.
In British Columbia, the most common types of groundfish that anglers target include flounder (including halibut and sole), lingcod, pacific cod, and rockfish species. Most groundfish don’t migrate far, tending to stay localized to one area for the course of their lives. The saltwater groundfish highlighted here can all be found deep within BC waters at various times of the year.
Below is our breakdown of the most common types of groundfish found in British Columbia.
Flounders are a group of fish belonging to the flatfish family, which also includes halibut and sole. When compared to halibut, which are in a category all their own due to their sheer size, flounders are smaller, shorter, and rounder – with smaller teeth and more prominent mouths.
Pacific flounder are edible – their flesh is low in fat, soft-textured, and has a very mild flavour. It tastes best when lightly sautéed or braised. Two common types of flounder found in BC waters and fish markets are the starry flounder and the arrowtooth flounder.
Starry flounder have black and white or orange bands around their dorsal and anal fins and weigh anywhere from one to more than 10 pounds. They can grow to be around three-feet long and prefer the sandy and muddy deep seas of the Northern Pacific. Arrowtooth flounder are another type of pacific flounder that grow to be a similar size, with brownish coloured bodies and large, toothy mouths.
Halibut are actually in the flounder family but remain in a category all their own to distinguish them as a highly prized, edible fish. Halibut are a saltwater groundfish with a very distinctive body style. They are a larger type of flatfish species with their top side being brown and underbelly side being white. They swim sideways, camouflaging themselves with the seabed like most flatfish.
Halibut have large, elongated, diamond-shaped bodies and broad tails. Highly sought after for their valuable meat, halibut are a fun and rewarding fish to fish for. There are, however, strict limits in place to protect halibut numbers. You are not allowed to keep halibut that exceed 126 cm in length, including the head, and the daily catch limit for halibut is one.
Lingcod, which are not actually ling or cod but resemble a mix of both those fish – are large saltwater fish that are easily attracted to both live bait and lures. Lingcod (aka ling cod, buffalo cod or cultus cod) can weight up to 130 pounds and grow to be more than 4 feet in length with long, slender bodies that are either brown or green with orange spots. Their heads are larger than their bodies, and their fang-like teeth give them an even more distinctive appearance.
Lingcod is a great fish to eat and can be prepared a number of ways, such as grilling and steaming. Lingcod are found on the west coast at depths of 1,500 feet or more.
Pacific Cod have elongated bodies with three dorsal fins and squarish tails. They are brown to grey on their dorsal side, while underneath they are pale grey to white. Pacific cod have long chin barbel and on average weigh 2 to 5 kilograms but can grow to more than one metre long and weigh more than 20 kilograms. They travel in large schools down to depths of around 900 metres.
Pacific cod are also called grey cod or greyfish and are an important food species for North American and Japanese markets, which makes them another highly regulated groundfish. They taste best when bak
ed, broiled, boiled, steamed, deep-fried, and mixed in stews and chowders. Cod is truly a versatile fish.
Rockfish is a broad term for a several species of groundfish that live specifically in rocky seabeds, as opposed to sandy or muddy seab
eds. In BC, common types of rockfish include copper rockfish, black rockfish, canary rockfish and quillback rockfish, among others. Most rockfish are edible, with a mild, sweet flavor and nutty accent.
Rockfish range in appearance from solid coloured, mottled colour, or banded colouration. Many are actually named after their colouring. Rockfish are members of the Scorpaenidae family (scorpionfish), meaning they have varying degrees of mildly venomous spines. Their dorsal fins are tall and deeply incised so as to appear jagged or spikey. The eyes of most rockfish are big and bulbous.
Pacific Yelloweye Rockfish and Longspine Thornyhead
Two common types of rockfish you might have seen at seafood markets are the Pacific yelloweye rockfish, a.k.a. “Pacific red snapper” and the Pacific longspine thornyhead.
Pacific red snapper is the largest West Coast scorpionfish, growing up to 1 metre long, weighing around 23 kilograms, and living to be up to 120 years old. Pacific red snapper is orangey yellow with a bit of pink on the back and sides. It’s a prized fish around the Lower Mainland especially for commercial and recreational groundfish fisheries for its large size and excellent meat quality.
The Pacific longspine thornyhead is another unique deep-sea rockfish around the Lower Mainland in that it can survive many months between meals, live up to 50 years, and has distinctive bulbous eyeballs. Commercially speaking, longspine thornyheads are caught primarily for the Japanese market.
Sole is a broad term for several species of smaller flatfish within the flounder-groundfish category. In the Pacific Ocean, the two most common types of sole are English Sole and Rock sole. Both types have a diamond-shaped, flattened body that easily skims along the ocean floor. Both have small, pointed heads with rounded, fan-like tails and long, flat fins on each side of their bodies.
Rock sole have a brown and grey mottled body that blends in with the ocean floor and a blind side that is white with a pink tinge. English sole is more of a solid brown colour with a blind side that is white or slightly yellowed.
There is also the Pacific Dover sole found at seafood markets that resembles the common sole of Europe – the Dover sole. Pacific Dover sole are solid brown in colour and excrete a mucous onto their skin, making them a slippery catch.
In general, sole can grow to about 50-60 centimetres long and are usually found at depths of less than 150 metres, though they can survive depths of down to 500 metres.
For help identifying any of the groundfish mentioned above, consult the DFO’s groundfish identification guide. Properly identifying your catch is important to help you stay within your daily catch limits administered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). No matter what type of fish you set out to catch, make sure you’re aware of the DFO’s freshwater and saltwater fishing regulations
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