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Sanddabs vs Halibut: Know the Difference

If you have a question regarding sanddabs vs halibut, know one thing for certain—they are both varieties of flatfish. But even if they belong to a similar family, the genetic makeup, build and characteristics of the two fish can still be vastly different.

So what are the similarities and differences between the two species? 

The following sections will attempt to shed some light on sanddabs vs halibut, but first, let’s look at a brief description for each of them:

What Are Flatfish?

Flatfish, as the name suggests, are quite literally fish that have a flat body. This is a group of fish that are characterized by their thin, oval and bony bodies. When they lay on the ocean floor, their bodies will be flat, providing the perfect camouflage.

Typically, they swim in a horizontal fashion instead of keeping their belly towards the ocean floor and their back up. They tend to be bottom-dwelling and try to stay as close to the ocean floor as possible.

Author Note: Often, one may also find that a flatfish has both its eyes on the same side. The side that has the eyes is typically pigmented. The side that faces the ocean floor tends to be white in color. 

Some flatfish can even change color to camouflage with their surroundings better! There are around 600 species of flatfish in the world, sanddabs and halibut being two of them.


halibut fish in Ice

Sanddabs are a medium-sized flatfish. 

Even within sanddabs, one can find a variety of types, including the Pacific sanddab, Longfin sanddab and Speckled sanddab. 

The Pacific sanddab is one of the most common species of sanddabs. It is a brownish fish and the males often have orange specks. They grow up to 40 cm in length. They are, at times, also referred to as soft flounders.

Author Note: Sanddabs also happen to be one of the smallest flatfish and they have a thin spine that runs along the length of their body. Like any other flatfish, sanddabs are also bottom feeders. 

They are opportunistic eaters, feeding on crustaceans and smaller fish near the bottom of the ocean.


Halibut is a common name for three types of flatfish—Pacific halibut, California halibut and Atlantic halibut. 

They are found in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic Oceans. The Atlantic halibut happens to be the largest flatfish in the world, growing up to 4.6 meters in length. Like sanddabs and like all its other peers within flatfish, halibuts are also bottom feeders. Since they can grow extremely large, one may think they cannot camouflage. 

But their pigmented upper side blends in perfectly with the ocean floor, making it almost impossible for one to spot them.

Sanddabs vs Halibut

While sanddabs and halibuts are both bottom feeders and flat, there are also several differences that one can cite, which sets them apart. 

  • Size: For starters, sanddabs are typically small to medium-sized fish. If one were to debone them before cooking, there will be nothing left of the body! That’s how small and bony a sanddab is, no matter what variety of sanddab it is.

    Halibut, on the other hand, accounts for one of the largest types of flatfish in the world! A halibut can grow up to 9 feet in length and can weigh up to 500 pounds!

    Surely, there is no mistaking a halibut for a sanddab, even if they are both flatfish.
  • Eye Position: Most flatfish have both eyes on the same side as they glide horizontally on the ocean floor, instead of with their back up and belly down. However, the eye position of all flatfish is not the same.

    For example, halibuts have their eyes on the right side of their body, while sanddabs tend to be left-eyed. Even if a halibut offspring is born with one left eye, it will graduate to the right side within six months.
  • Halibut vs Flounder: The main difference between halibut and sanddabs comes down to whether or not halibut would be considered a flounder. Sanddabs are often referred to as small flounders, whereas halibut are too large and relatively meatier compared to an average flounder. Flounders also tend to be more delicate, soft and flaky compared to halibuts.
  • Fat Content: While sanddabs and halibut are both healthy and sustainable fish for one to consume, halibuts are some of the least fatty fish that one can consume, not only compared to sanddabs, but to most other types of fish.
  • Body: The bodies of sanddabs and halibuts are naturally different, given that one can be more than double the size of the other. But one distinctive feature that sets their bodies apart is that sanddabs tend to have a straight line curving down the back, whereas halibut begins to curve right around the pectoral fin. This is because of the sheer size and weight of the halibut.

Amazing Facts

Halibut struggling under water

Both sanddabs and halibuts are beautiful fish that offer some truly marvelous marine biological facts. Did you know that the oldest documented age for a halibut male and female is 55 years?

Author Note: That’s an incredible life span for a fish, perhaps because they are so large and are largely bottom feeders. They are also experts at camouflage! The age of a halibut is calculated by counting the rings on the fish’s ear bone. 

Of course, this is an estimate but it is a close enough estimate.

Pacific sanddabs, on the other hand, are masters of disguise! They are small but they can change the color of their body on command to match with their surroundings, implementing the perfect camouflage! 

Frequently Asked Questions

The following are some of the frequently asked questions one may have about sanddabs, halibuts and flatfish in general:

Q. Are Sanddabs Healthy?

Yes, sanddabs are an extremely healthy variety of fish and are considered a sustainable choice. Since they are bottom feeders, sanddabs are extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids which the human body needs but cannot produce by itself. Therefore, a healthy dose of sanddabs in one’s diet can make a great difference.

Q. Do Sanddabs Have Fins and Scales?

Yes, sanddabs do have fins and scales, but they are so fine that one does not need to remove them before grilling or cooking.

Q. Are Halibut Aggressive?

Given their size and incredible life span, it goes without saying that halibuts are a resilient species of fish. This also means that they put up a strong fight when it comes to fishing.

Firstly, it is not easy to catch a halibut while free fishing. But even if you do, one needs to be careful about snagging it as chances are it will simply fight its way to freedom and you will be left with an empty rig.

They can at times also be so large that while fighting, they can even cause injuries or damage the fishing boat. It is no mean feat fishing for halibut.

You’ll most likely want to gaff a halibut in order to bring it into the boat.

Q. Can One Eat Halibut Skin?

Halibut skin is typically too tough to eat, so you will need to remove it before or after you complete cooking it. The meat itself, however, is so scrumptious that it makes up for the extra effort taken to cook it.

Q. Are Flatfish Dangerous?

Flatfish are experts at camouflaging, which they use not only to hide from predators but also to catch their own prey. Some tropical species of flatfish can also be poisonous, so this is something divers will have to take care of when swimming close to the ocean floor.

Q. Do You Need to Gut a Flat Fish?

By definition, flatfish may be filetted because of how thin and flat they are. In most cases, you do not need to gut a flatfish. Some people even like to leave the fish’s head on while grilling, in which case you may want to remove the gills for a better singe.

Parting Thoughts

Pacific Sanddab

Sanddabs and halibut are both intelligent and colorful species of flatfish. They are both excellent at camouflage and make for popular delicacies in several parts of the world. While sanddabs are often sold whole, halibuts are too large to be sold whole. 

Either way, they are both versatile fish that lend themselves to various types of preparation.

What is interesting is that while both are species of flatfish, they can be extremely different. For starters, a halibut can be taller than a fully grown human being, while sanddabs are sold whole because of how small they are. 

If an average sanddab weighs two pounds, a halibut can weigh up to 500 pounds! 

We hope this brief explainer lends some insight into the sanddabs vs halibut debate and you have a clearer idea of how the two are similar, but more importantly how the two are different.


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