All About Groundfish
Groundfish are a family of mild, white-fleshed fish that swim near the bottom of the ocean near shore. Groundfish encompasses 90+ different species of fish that are native to the Pacific and abundant off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state. Including lingcod, rockfish, sole, flounder, blackcod and many more, groundfish have been a staple of west coast fisheries, and diners’ plates, for generations.
Yet twenty years ago, the fishery collapsed due to overfishing, and was declared a disaster by the federal government. Fishers and mandating agencies banded together and imposed stricter regulations that ranged from decreased catch limits and seasonal closures to depth-based closures and gear restrictions. As a result, the fishery rebounded much faster than anyone could have predicted. Nine overfished stocks of rockfish have been rebuilt, many ahead of schedule by decades. By-catch levels have been reduced dramatically and thousands of miles of fish habitat are now protected. In acknowledgement of these remarkable improvements, the Marine Stewardship Council certifies 18 species of West Coast groundfish as sustainable, and the Seafood Watch Program lists them as “Best Choice.”
Groundfish are defined by where they live, spending at least part of their lives on the ocean floor. Some species are long-lived, with life spans exceeding 30 years and, in some cases, up to 100 years or longer. Groundfish inhabit a variety of depths, ranging from intertidal and nearshore to waters as deep as 3,500 meters.
Today, groundfish are solidly back on fishers’ boats, the dock and on the menu. Look for these varieties of fish on menus at coastal restaurants year-round. They make great tacos and fish and chips!
When are groundfish in season?
Groundfish are fished all year off of the coast of Oregon and the entire West Coast. Because there are so many species, which groundfish you may find fresh on local menus will vary. All the more reason to try them all and become familiar with the delicious Oregon-landed fishes of the Pacific Ocean.
Where can I find groundfish for purchase or consumption?
Groundfish are common on Oregon Coast menus all year round. Look for different varieties to turn up on menus all along the coast, in tacos, fish and chips, on salads and as entrees. Grocers and fishmongers very often have groundfish for sale. If you’re not sure what groundfish species is local and sustainable today, ask your chef, server or fishmonger for tips.
Good bets for fresh groundfish meals can be found all over the coast. Try Restaurant Beck at Whale’s Cove in Depoe Bay, Astoria’s South Bay Wild Fish House, or Garibaldi’s popular blue food truck Sea Baron, which fries up beer-battered local lingcod and albacore out of a parking lot. Another food truck, Squatchsami, delivers the goods south of Lincoln City near Salishan. The Boat serves fish and chips in Coos Bay overlooking the bay front, while JoElle’s in Waldport serves whatever is fresh caught from their own boat. Catalyst in Brookings also operates their own fishing boat, all the better to deliver fresh groundfish (and other seafare) directly to the restaurant and on to diner’s plates.
Fun facts about groundfish
- There are 60 different species of rockfish (22 landed commercially in Oregon), that have a variety of different habitats and behaviors.
- In 2013, someone caught a 200-year-old rockfish!
- Fish are aged using their ear bones, or otoliths, which put on seasonal rings like a tree trunk.
- Rockfish have live young, which is rare for fish. Older, larger females have larger numbers and healthier babies.
- Lingcod fillets can be blue (but turn white when cooked). Nobody really knows why, but it is likely linked to their diet.
- Lingcod are voracious predators that let their prey come to them, and lie in wait for unsuspecting fish, crab, and octopuses.
- Most sablefish are exported to Japan.
- Sperm whales eat sablefish and will dive into very deep waters to eat them. Some sperm whales have even learned how to pick them off fishermen longlines.
- Sablefish have very high levels of Omega-3s, up to 50% more than salmon.
- All flatfish are born swimming upright and with an eye on both sides of their head. As they grow, one eye migrates to the other side, and the fish starts to swim on its side on the bottom.
More to know
- Learn more about the collapse and recovery of the groundfish fishery on this page from Oregon Sea Grant.
- Positively Groundfish is a great resource to learn more about all Oregon-landed groundfish species as well as the state of the fishery.
- Oregon Sea Grant offers rockfish recipes, including this one for Rockfish Puttanesca and Local Ocean’s Classic Grilled Fish and Chips.
Get the lowdown on some key groundfish species.
Pacific Rockfish aka Rock Cod, Pacific Snapper, Thornyheads
Rockfish are 50+ different species of every imaginable coloring that are prevalent along the entire West Coast of the United States from California to Alaska, and get their name from living in rocky habitats. Rockfish in general are slow-growing and long-lived species.
Better known as black cod or butterfish, sablefish can be found on the menus of fine dining restaurants around the world. These deep-sea fish live in cold waters and are highly migratory. The fish is buttery, mild and it flakes in perfect large chunks.
A Lingcod is actually neither a Ling nor a Cod, but instead belongs to the Greenling family, just like sablefish. Their flesh is naturally a fantastic blue-green color when raw, but will turn snow-white when cooked.
Petrale Sole aka California sole and Pacific Dover Sole aka Slippery Sole
Petrale and Pacific Dover Sole are right-eyed flounders rather than true soles. That means that as they grow up their left eye wanders across until both eyes are on the right side of their body. Petrale Sole are common all along the U.S. West Coast. Like all flatfishes, they are well-adapted to live on or near the sea floor.
Pacific Ocean Perch
Pacific Ocean Perch is a species within the rockfish family and has similar traits (and taste) to many other deep-water rockfish. They live in deeper waters and like rocky and sandy habitats. They can reach the ripe age of 90+ years old, and wait until they are 10 years old to start reproducing.
The Starry Flounder is a gorgeous flatfish with distinctive black and white/orange bars across its fins. It gets its name from the star-shaped scales that cover its body and give it a rough cheese-grater feel. It is classified as a right-eye Flounder, meaning that it ends up with both eyes on its right side. They prefer sandy or gravel bottoms up to 1,200 feet depth, and like to feed on small clams, invertebrates, some larger fish and worms.
Pacific Sanddabs are a type of left-eyed Flounder, meaning that both of their eyes are on the left side of their bodies. The fish have a sweet, soft texture that is uncommonly moist and mild. They usually spend their entire lives within a 2-mile radius.
Pacific Cod aka Alaska Cod, True Cod, Grey Cod
Pacific Cod is a bottom-dwelling fish related and similar to the Atlantic Cod. With mild flakey fillets, it is an exceptionally versatile fish to cook with. Pacific Cod can be found from California to Alaska but are more common from Oregon northward. They are a schooling fish that live on the upper continental slope and the continental shelf edge at depth of 300-800 feet, where they feed on crustaceans, worms and other fish.
Pacific Whiting or Hake
Pacific Whiting or Hake is a ray-finned fish and the biggest and most abundant fishery off the West Coast of the U.S., and thus is usually very good value for money. It is a healthy and well-managed fishery that is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
The Longnose Skate
The Longnose Skate is a species of ray, distinct for its very pointed nose. Skates, much like other rays and sharks, don’t have any bones. The triangular pectoral fins, which are usually referred to as “skate wings”, are the part we like to eat – they taste similar to lobster or scallops. They live on sandy or silty seafloors, often buried up to their eyes, perfectly camouflaged, waiting patiently for prey, such as small fishes, invertebrates, mollusks and worms.