English sole is available year-round, but is most common on short trips during spring and summer. English sole is a smaller flatfish and because it has smaller fillets it can be a good value that also holds well in many preparations. The fish is more delicate in both taste and texture compared to Dover sole (M. pacificus) The flesh should have a uniform color, lack bruises, and any yellow or gray color indicates old age. Fresh fish can last on ice up to 10 days. English sole has a clean, white color when cooked and the distinct iodine smell the fish has is also diminished when cooked.
Key sustainability notes for English sole from landings averaged from 2011-2013 based on current 2017 Seafood Watch ratings:
~30% of Pacific landings get a "Best Choice (green)" rating (U.S. West Coast)
~65% of Pacific landings get a "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating (British Columbia)
~5% of Pacific landings are unrated (Alaska)
Within the "Best Choice" ratings, ~45% of English sole is landed in Oregon, ~40% in Washington, and ~15% in California. In recent years, ~1% of the total allowable catch (TAC) for English sole was harvested in the U.S. West Coast and ~50% in British Columbia.
English sole are a flatfish with both eyes on the right side of their head – with the upper eye also being visible on the underside. Female English sole grow up to two feet in length, twice as long as males, and can live over 20 years, four years longer than males.
Male English sole reach sexual maturity at two years, and females at three. Spawning occurs from winter to spring on muddy ocean floors 165 to 230 feet deep. Larvae remain near the surface for two to three months before they move with the tide towards estuary nursery areas. They spend one to two years in the nursery areas before migrating to deeper waters in the early summer.
Larvae feed on plankton, while juveniles and adults eat crustaceans, worms, small bivalves, and other bottom-dwelling invertebrates. English sole hunt during the day using sight and smell, and sometimes digging for their food. Seabirds, large fish, and marine mammals prey on juvenile English sole. Sharks, other large fish, and marine mammals feed on adults.
English sole are found off the Pacific Coast of North America from the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands to Baja California Sur, Mexico. Past survey data indicates nearly all occur at depths below 820 feet (250 meters) with adults living in waters more than 1800 feet deep (549 meters). Larval and juveniles live in nursery areas such as estuaries and nearshore habitats while older juveniles and adults prefer soft sand or mud bottoms further offshore. They have also been known to inhabit eelgrass habitats. After a spawning season in the spring, English sole will travel north to summer feeding grounds, retuning south in the fall. However, these migrations are limited in range. Based on these limited movements, tagging studies have identified multiple separate stocks along North America.
Science & Management
Coastal states and treaty tribes conduct portside monitoring programs, providing biological data that are used in stock assessment science and aid in management decisions. Additional research in Canadian waters, such as improving historical and current catch data and on sexual maturity, will help scientists improve their model trends on the abundance of English sole.
English sole are used as an indicator species for contaminated waters in Puget Sound because they are easily sampled, abundant, and broadly distributed in the northwestern United States. As an indicator species, English sole are used to study the effects of hydrocarbon exposure. The hydrocarbons, known as PAH’s, are found in coal and tar deposits and are produced by the incomplete combustion of organic matter (engines, incinerators, forest fires, etc.). A study done in 2013 shows the possibility of long-range contamination due to migratory summer feeding habits. More research is needed to evaluate if genetically distinctive groups of English sole are affected and respond differently to changes in their environment.
NOAA Fisheries and Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) manage the English sole fishery in California, Oregon, and Washington under the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Implemented in 1982, the Pacific Coast Groundfish FMP covers over 90 species including rockfish, skates, and other flatfish caught off the US West Coast. The US commercial groundfish fishery is comprised of three components: Limited Entry (LE), Open Access (OA), and Nearshore (NS). The LE and OA sectors are managed by the PFMC while the NS sector is jointly managed by the PFMC and the states of Oregon and California respectfully. The English sole population along the US West Coast is considered healthy and the fishery is well managed due to measures such as:
A limited entry program – limiting the number of commercial fishing permits available
Minimum size and total catch limits
Seasonal and closed areas to protect sensitive habitats
A vessel monitoring system to ensure vessels are complying with closed areas
Beginning in 2011, LE trawl permit holders were allowed to participate in a catch share program. Participants in the program receive an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) of the total catch of the 29 commercial species/species complexes along the US West Coast. Fishers participating in the program can fish their quota at anytime during the season and can use non-trawl gear to catch their quota shares. Whereas non-IFQ fisheries have varying levels of at-sea observer coverage, the catch share program requires 100 percent at-sea and dockside monitoring. A subset of the IFQ, the California Groundfish Collective, comprises 11 fishing operations that have entered into an agreement to pool member’s IFQs.
Based on 2014 catch data, the US West Coast population are not overfished nor subject to overfishing. NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the English sole fishery in Alaska under the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska and the Fishery Management Plan for Groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. English sole are considered scarce in the Gulf of Alaska, but are managed under the FMP for Groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska as part of the “Shallow Water Flatfish Complex.” Under the FMP for Groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska fishers must adhere to:
Total allowable catch limits (TAC). TACs are allocated in the Gulf of Alaska by gear type and by processing sector
A limited entry program – limiting the number of commercial fishing permits available
Closed areas to protect sensitive habitats
A 2015 stock assessment determined that the Shallow Water Flatfish Complex is not overfished nor subject to overfishing.
There is no direct fishery for English sole in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands; however, they are still included and assessed in the FMP for Groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands as part of the Other Flatfish Complex. While there is no direct fishery for English sole in this area, fishers must adhere to measures under the FMP applying to all groundfish such as: TACs, a limited entry program, and gear modifications. Additionally, fishery managers in Alaska set a limit on the amount of halibut and crab that may be caught incidentally in the groundfish fishery. Once those limits are exceeded, the groundfish fishery will close for the rest of the season.
The Other Flatfish Complex in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands was last assessed in 2015; however, the data was insufficient in determining whether the complex is overfished. According to NOAA, the complex is not subject to overfishing.
English sole are managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) under the Integrated Fishery Management Plan (IFMP) for Groundfish in Canada. There are two stocks of English sole found in British Columbia waters – one in the Hecate Strait and the other off the west coast of Vancouver Island and in Queen Charlotte Sound. Among management measures the DFO establishes under the IFMP for Groundfish include:
An Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ) system in which IVQs can be reallocated between vessels and fisheries as necessary
100 percent at-sea and dockside monitoring
Habitat conservation measures such as spatial closures to avoid bycatch of sensitive corals and sponges
English sole is a flatfish more closely related to flounder that is caught off the North American West Coast from the Bering Sea to Baja, California. Along the U.S. West Coast, the population was found to be healthy in a 2013 stock assessment. The two stocks of English sole in British Columbia’s waters are also considered healthy, according to a 2014 Seafood Watch report. English sole is part of a flatfish complex in Alaska that has a set overfishing level, and at the most recent assessment in 2013 that level had not been exceeded.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
English sole are primarily caught using bottom trawls that are usually highly destructive to ocean habitats, but the fish tend to inhabit softer habitats with sand and gravel that are more resilient to trawling, FishWatch reported. Seafood Watch reports from 2014 for English sole noted that the vessels targeting them follow spatial and gear restrictions that also limit the trawling impact, particularly on sponges and corals.
Overfished rockfish have been caught unintentionally in the trawls that target English sole, but gear modifications and management measures such as minimum trawl mesh sizes, small footrope regulations, and the mandatory use of selective flatfish trawl nets in areas off the coasts of Oregon and Washington have helped reduce bycatch, according to FishWatch. Bycatch levels are very low in the Alaska flatfish fishery that includes English sole. In British Columbia, corals and sponges can be caught accidentally although new measures implemented in 2012 have minimized that bycatch, Seafood Watch reported in 2014.
NOAA Fisheries, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manage English sole in the United States. In British Columbia, Fisheries and Oceans Canada manage them. Along the U.S. West Coast, management measures include federal limited entry permitting, gear restrictions, and a trawl rationalization catch share program that sets limits. In the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands, English sole are covered by a license limitation program limiting the number, size, and specific operation of vessels in groundfish fisheries, FishWatch reported. A total allowable catch levels are set on the fish there as well. Management of the English sole fisheries in North America is considered strong overall.