It’s easy to get confused by the different types of Flatfish. They all look similar. They all taste great. What’s more, one man’s Sole is another man’s Flounder, and the names of Flatfish are often different in the ocean and on your plate. With that in mind, we’re diving into the muddy waters of these piscine pancakes to cut through the jargon and explain what’s what.
Flatfish are a common catch in both the US and the UK. Some are the same in both countries, but many of them aren’t. This article will give you a basic rundown of the most popular Flatfish in North America and in Britain. You can also learn a little about how the family fits together – what makes a “flat fish” a Flatfish, so to speak.
What’s a Flatfish: a Quick Overview
“Flatfish” is a catch-all name for more than 700 different species of fish. The group includes Flounder, Halibut, Sole, Plaice, Dab, Turbot, and more. It’s important to note that half the time these names don’t follow any kind of scientific classification. Pretty much all our favorite Flatfish are technically Flounder, but most of them go by another name.
Flatfish spend their lives lying on the seafloor waiting for a meal to swim their way. Because of this, they’re perfectly designed for a life on the bottom. Their dabbled skin changes color to match their surroundings and their white underside makes them invisible from below if they ever leave their muddy home.
To top it all off, their whole head is twisted sideways. Flatfish start out round, but as they grow, their body starts to flatten out. One eye “migrates” across their head and their mouth twists to the side. The group is divided into “right-eye” or “left-eye” fish depending on which eye moves. If you hold one up and it faces right when its eyes are above its mouth, it’s right-eyed. Either way, it’s not pretty.
This brings us on to a very important point: Just because a fish is flat, that doesn’t automatically make it a Flatfish. The group doesn’t include Rays, Skates, Monkfish, or other squashed-looking species. It only refers to the wide family of fish with two eyes on one side of their face.
Types of Flatfish in North America
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to tackle the specific species you can find in North America. If you’re only interested in British waters, feel free to skip down to the next section. Reading both parts will give you the clearest picture of how the family fits together, though.
In essence, Flounder is the general name for hundreds of different fish. The group includes Halibut, Plaice, Dab – pretty much every Flatfish in North America. To keep things simple, let’s stick to the fish that actually have Flounder in their name.
Most North American Flounders live along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The most popular ones are Summer Flounder (Fluke), Winter Flounder (American Lemon Sole), and Southern Flounder. We’ve covered these three in more detail here. On the West Coast, you also have Starry Flounder and California Flounder. More on that below.
Halibut are the undisputed kings of the bottom, reaching over 8 feet long and several hundred pounds in weight. The two species of “true” Halibut are Atlantic and Pacific Halibut. Sadly, Atlantic Halibut is now endangered, so most of the fish for sale in North America is Pacific Halibut caught in Alaska.
Simple so far? Keep reading. California Flounder is often called “Halibut” because it’s a similar shape. There’s also Greenland “Halibut,” which the FDA rebranded to Greenland Turbot to avoid confusion. The fact that it’s not a Turbot either didn’t seem to matter. If you want specifics on the difference between Halibut and Flounder, we’ve gone into more detail here.
American Sole is a family of fish with small, barely noticeable heads and their high tolerance for fresh water. They’re a different family to European Soles, although the most popular ones are named after species in Britain. On the Pacific Coast, they include English, Petrale, Curlfin, and Pacific Dover Sole (not the same as European Dover Sole).
There are also a couple of fish on the East Coast that people call “Sole,” namely Winter Flounder (“Lemon Sole,” but a different species to European Lemon Sole), and Witch Flounder (which sometimes goes by “Grey Sole”). If you’re buying Sole in a shop or a fish market, it’s most likely Pacific Dover Sole or American Lemon Sole, depending on where you live.
Plaice is a name given to four different species of right-eye Flounder. Two of them live in North America, the most common of which is American Plaice. This fish lives on both sides of the Atlantic, and goes by the name “Rough Dab” in Europe. There’s also a species in the Pacific called Alaska Plaice.
North America’s biggest commercial Plaice fishery is in Labrador in Canada. Chances are that any Plaice you buy was caught there. Alaska Plaice aren’t a huge target commercially and you won’t normally find them for sale unless you live on the North Pacific coast.
And So Much More!
There are a dozen more Flatfish names in North America. In short, they’re all Flounder. If you see something sold as “Turbot,” it’s either Greenland Halibut, Arrowtooth Flounder, or Curlfin Sole. Just bought some “Brill?” It’s probably Petrale Sole. All of these are Flounders.
Types of Flatfish in the UK
Flatfish are a lot less confusing in the UK. For one thing, there are far fewer species than in North America. There’s also the fact that they weren’t named at random by European settlers based on what they vaguely looked like. Here are the most common species.
There’s only one fish in the UK called Flounder – European Flounder. These guys live all around the Britsh Isles and are a regular target for anglers and commercial crews alike. Despite this, Flounder stocks are much healthier than other British Flatfish, making it a good alternative if you’re looking for sustainable fish.
You can recognize Flounder by their long body and wide dorsal fins which give them a diamond shape when they’re extended but fold flat against their sides. Despite this, Flounder often gets mixed up with European Plaice. If you can’t tell which one you’re looking at, check the head. Plaice have a bony ridge on their heads, Flounder don’t.
Speaking of Plaice, these are one of the most popular Flatfish to eat in the UK. As well as the commercial harvest, they’re a favorite among British sea anglers. The easiest way to identify Plaice is by their signature orange spots. They also have rounded dorsal fins, and have a clearly defined head like Flounder.
Similar to Flounder, European Plaice stocks seem to be healthy at the moment. They were massively overfished in the 1970s and ‘80s, but their numbers are now increasing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Turbot are the tastiest and most expensive type of Flatfish. So much so, that they have earned the nickname “King of Fish.” This makes Turbot a favorite for both commercial and recreational fishers. It also means that you sometimes find other fish sold as Turbot in less reputable restaurants.
Of course, there’s another downside to Turbot being so tasty: overfishing. Turbot numbers are decreasing and the species as a whole is vulnerable to extinction, according to the IUNC. If you want our advice, stick to other Flatfish species that cost half as much and aren’t nearly as overfished.
There are two species of Sole in the UK: Dover Sole and Lemon Sole. Neither of them are the same as their American counterparts, and some British anglers even see American Soles as fakes of their favorite foods. Dover Sole gets its name from the southern port town of Dover, and it’s most common in the South of England, but both these fish show up all around Britain.
Sole are easy to recognize, thanks to their long body and small head. Dover Sole is a much more important fish, both commercially and recreationally. It lives in much shallower water, so it’s easier to get to. On top of that, Lemon Sole have a tiny mouths that make them difficult to hook even if a sea angler comes across one.
Chips shops and fishmongers around the country are full of different Flatfish. Some, like Dab, have become common on British menus since more prestigious fish grew scarce. Others, like Brill, have always been enjoyed, but have never been as popular as mainstay species like Plaice or Sole.
And of course, there are some species, like Atlantic Halibut, which you can still buy but which are tragically endangered in the wild. If it has to be Halibut, make sure it’s Alaskan Halibut, as these guys are much more sustainably managed.
Summing Up: the Many Names and Types of Flatfish.
If there’s one thing you can take away from all this, it’s that the names of Flatfish often have very little to do with the species themselves. Dozens of fish go by a handful of names, and most of them are called something different elsewhere.
Whatever you call them, all Flatfish have a few things in common. They live on the bottom, their faces are the stuff of nightmares, and they taste absolutely delicious. Oh, and if you’re not sure what you’ve caught, chances are it’s technically a Flounder.
What are your favorite types of Flatfish? Do you catch any of them regularly? Did we help you make sense of the many confusing names these bottom-dwellers have? Let us know in the comments below, we love to hear from you!