Sablefish

Sablefish

Anoplopoma fimbria

ALSO KNOWN AS:

    Black cod, Butterfish, Skil, Skilfish, Beshow, Coalfish

SOURCE:

    U.S. wild-caught off Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California
 

STATUS

  • POPULATION
  • FISHING RATE
  • HABITAT IMPACTS
  • BYCATCH
 

Click the icons to learn more about each criteria

 
 

OVERVIEW

Juvenile sablefish.

Juvenile sablefish.

LAUNCH GALLERY

Sablefish might be new to you, but U.S. and Canadian fishermen have been harvesting this tasty, buttery fish since the late 1800s. With continued scientific monitoring of the resource and careful management of our fisheries, we should be able to enjoy sablefish for generations to come.

The U.S. sablefish fishery hasn't always been sustainable—in Alaska, heavy fishing from foreign fleets depleted the population in the 1970s. With the implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976, the United States took back control of our waters, phasing out foreign fishing and restricting the amount of sablefish that could be caught. However, with an expanding fishery and increased regulations, the fishing season began to shorten, averaging only 1 to 2 months. When too many fishermen are fishing competitively in such a short season, the fishery produces a lot of fish, but prices are low, quality is poor, and the fishery is inefficient and extremely unsafe. In 1995, managers implemented an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program for the Alaska commercial longline fishery. This program allocates a set quota of the allowed harvest to individual fishermen, allowing them the flexibility to harvest their quota within a longer season. Under this program, incidental harvest of immature fish has decreased, improving the chance that individual fish will reproduce at least once and help replenish and sustain the sablefish population. This program has also increased the safety, efficiency, and value of the fishery—in fact, sablefish is currently the highest valued finfish (per pound) in Alaska fisheries.

The U.S. sablefish fishery off the West Coast harvests sablefish with trawl and fixed gear (longlines and pots). The trawl fishery and part of the fixed gear fishery are also managed under IFQ programs, similar to Alaska’s. Under these programs, fishermen can harvest their share of the catch whenever they want and with a variety of gears, allowing them the flexibility to better plan their season, reduce bycatch of overfished species, and fish during safer weather and when market prices for their catch are highest.

Looking Ahead

Because of their high value, unique flavor, and health benefits, sablefish has been targeted as a prime candidate for commercial marine aquaculture. For the past 3 decades, scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center have been at the forefront of developing environmentally sound aquaculture technologies to increase the supply of healthy seafood and conserve depleted fish stocks. Research at the Center has led to improvements in spawning techniques, egg incubation, larval fish nutrition, and husbandry for sablefish. Companies in both Canada and the United States are beginning work on sablefish aquaculture.

 
 
 

LOCATION & HABITAT

Sablefish are found in the northeastern Pacific Ocean from northern Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska, westward to the Aleutian Islands and into the Bering Sea. There are two populations of sablefish in the Pacific Ocean. They’ve been identified based on differences in growth rate, size when they are able to reproduce, and tagging studies. A northern population inhabits Alaska and northern British Columbia waters, and a southern population inhabits waters off southern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California. The two populations mix off southwest Vancouver Island and northwest Washington.

Sablefish are most common in Alaska waters. Adult sablefish live on mud bottoms in waters deeper than 650 feet. Some have been found as deep as 9,800 feet. Juvenile sablefish live near the surface in nearshore waters.

 
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BIOLOGY

Sablefish grow quickly, up to 3 feet in length. Females are able to reproduce when they are about 6-1/2 years old and more than 2 feet in length; males are able to reproduce a little earlier, at age 5 and 1.9 feet. Sablefish spawn in deeper water along the continental slope from March through April in Alaska, and from January through March between California and British Columbia. Their eggs develop in deep water for about 2 weeks until they hatch. The hatched larvae swim to the surface after they begin feeding. In southeast Alaska and British Columbia, juveniles appear in nearshore waters by fall. Sablefish are highly mobile for part of their life; in fact, some juveniles have been found to migrate more than 2,000 miles in 6 or 7 years. Sablefish can live to be more than 90 years old.

Small sablefish feed on zooplankton (tiny floating animals) in their first weeks of life. As they grow older, sablefish feed on whatever prey is available, from bottom invertebrates to other fish, squid, and jellyfish. Other fish (including sharks) seabirds, and whales feed on sablefish.

 
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PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

Sablefish looks much like cod. In fact, they’re often referred to as a black cod even though they are not actually part of the cod family. Sablefish are members of the Anoplopomatidae family, a group of fishes found only in the North Pacific Ocean.

 
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OVERVIEW

NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center assesses the abundance of sablefish through annual longline surveys. Scientists also conduct trawl surveys to assess abundance every 1 to 3 years. Scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center conduct bottom trawl surveys to assess the abundance of sablefish and other groundfish off the West Coast. Fishery data is collected by fishery observers and through required and voluntary logbook programs.

 
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POPULATION STATUS

According to the most recent stock assessment, completed in 2011, the West Coast sablefish population is not overfished and is not experiencing overfishing. The Eastern Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands/Gulf of Alaska sablefish stock is also not overfished and is not experiencing overfishing, based on the 2013 stock assessment.

 
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ADDITIONAL RESEARCH

NOAA Fisheries has been tagging and releasing sablefish in Alaska waters since 1972. Scientists use data from this program to study sablefish movements. The results show that sablefish are highly migratory for at least part of their lives, and their movement rates are great enough to affect the amount of fish available for harvest in an area. Although the results of the longline survey are the main data used to determine sablefish quotas, tag data provide complementary information that enhances survey data.

 
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Harvesting Sablefish

Most Alaskan fishermen use longlines to harvest sablefish. Although the effects of this type of gear on bottom habitat are poorly understood, catch efficiency has increased under the individual fishing quota program, reducing the number of hooks deployed and any effects on bottom habitat. This program has also reduced bycatch—the fishery operates at a slower pace and provides incentives to maximize value from the catch. Catches in the longline fishery are made up mostly of sablefish (about 90 percent); bycatch most often includes giant grenadier, arrowtooth flounder, and shortaker and thornyhead rockfishes. Measures also have successfully reduced interactions with seabirds.

Pot fishing for sablefish has increased in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands as a response to depredation (the removal of fish from fishing gear) by killer whales. There’s not much information on the impact of pots on habitat, as their use has just recently increased and they’re still a fairly minor component of the overall sablefish catch. Sablefish is also caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries for rockfish and deepwater flatfish. Trawls are prohibited in certain areas to protect sensitive habitats.

West Coast fishermen harvest sablefish with trawls, longlines, and pots. The fixed gear fishery (using longline and pots) generally targets sablefish only, while the trawl fishery generally targets sablefish with other deepwater species such as Dover sole and thornyhead rockfish. Similar to the Alaska fishery, some areas are closed to fishing with trawls, longlines, and pots to protect essential fish habitat or overfished species. All vessels participating in the West Coast Groundfish Trawl Catch Share Program are required to carry a NOAA Fisheries–certified observer during all fishing trips, while vessels participating in the limited entry fixed gear sablefish fishery or the open access sablefish fishery are subject to random observer coverage. (An observer is an independent field biologist who monitors commercial fishing activities by collecting and recording at-sea catch data.) Under the catch share program, full accounting of the catch leads to reduced bycatch.

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Management

Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Alaska fisheries) and Pacific Fishery Management Council (West Coast fisheries)

Current management:

Alaska: Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Groundfish Fishery Management Plans

  • Fishing season from approximately March 1 to November 15.
  • Annual quota divided among fishing gear types. Fixed gear (longlines and pots) harvests around 85 percent of the sablefish quota and trawl gear about 15 percent.
  • Individual fishing quota program for the majority of fixed gear—individuals are allotted a specific share of the total catch to harvest throughout the fishing season.

The State of Alaska manages fisheries for sablefish in state waters under a shared quota system—all permit holders receive an equal share of the annually determined catch quota.

West Coast: Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan

  • Coast-wide catch limits, allocated among the different fishing groups and gear types (trawl and fixed, each accounting for about half of the sablefish catch off the West Coast).
  • Daily trip limits (a limit placed on the amount that can be caught on a daily trip out to sea) for some vessels.
  • Individual fishing quota for the trawl fishery and some of the fixed gear fishery – individuals are allotted a specific share of the total catch to harvest throughout the fishing season.
  • Full observer coverage in the trawl fishery, partial coverage in the fixed gear fishery.

Outside of U.S. waters, sablefish are caught along the British Columbia coast, from the Vancouver area north to the Alaska border. This fishery is managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada disclaimer .

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Annual Harvest

In 2012, fishermen harvested more than 41 million pounds of sablefish from U.S. waters. Alaska fishermen harvested the majority of the catch, hauling in more than 31 million pounds, while the reminder of the catch came from California, Oregon, and Washington. 

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Economy

Sablefish have a rich oil content, which makes them exceptionally flavorful and, therefore, a very valuable commercial species. In fact, sablefish are the highest valued finfish per pound in Alaska and West Coast commercial fisheries. Sablefish has traditionally been exported to Japan, where demand and prices are high, but an increasing amount is staying in the U.S. market as consumers are starting to appreciate this unique, tasty fish. In 2012, sablefish landings were worth more than $140 million. 

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RECREATIONAL

Sablefish are also occasionally caught in Alaska recreational fisheries during their summer migrations onto the continental shelf.

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OVERVIEW

Sablefish has a rich oil content, making it exceptionally flavorful with a soft, velvety texture. In fact, it’s often called butterfish because of its melt-in-your-mouth, oil-rich meat. The meat has large, white flakes and is excellent grilled or smoked.

Some say the highest quality sablefish comes from longline and pot fisheries and that the larger the fish, the better the quality. Because of its high oil content, sablefish has a short shelf life and must be handled carefully. You can find it fresh (headed and gutted or as fillets or steaks), frozen (headed and gutted), or smoked from either Canada or the United States. (SeafoodSource) disclaimer

 
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SEASONAL AVAILABILITY

Year-round.

 
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NUTRITION

Sablefish is very high in the healthy, long-chain omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. It has approximately as much EPA and DHA as wild salmon.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 195
Protein 13.41 g
Fat, total 15.3 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 3.201 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 49 mg
Selenium 36.5 mcg
Sodium 56 mg

Sablefish Table of Nutrition

 
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