Sablefish: The New “It” Fish

Whether you call it sablefish, black cod or butterfish, this species is making a name for itself as a desirable menu item.

Native to the West Coast, sablefish is highly valued in the U.S. for its buttery flavor, and has potential for new markets abroad in Korea, United Arab Emirates and Singapore. Wild sablefish currently support a lucrative fishery but their stocks are not likely to increase, meaning that harvests from wild populations are unlikely to keep up with growing market demand. A possible solution? Aquaculture.

Sablefish aquaculture could benefit Washington’s fishing industry and local tribe economies. However, because the sablefish lives at great depths in the ocean, it is particularly difficult to rear: hurdles such as lengthy, expensive production processes, disease, and poor-quality eggs and larvae have presented serious challenges to developing a sablefish aquaculture industry. With the help of Washington Sea Grant-funded research, however, this is starting to change.

Graham Young

A WSG-supported research team is partnering with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and others to find cost-effective ways to successfully raise this finfish for commercial-scale production. The team includes Graham Young, professor at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and director of the Western Regional Aquaculture Center, along with Rick Goetz, director of the marine finfish and shellfish biology program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC). After working closely with partners for the past decade on these challenges, the team is now making great strides.

“Research on the rearing of sablefish conducted over the past 10 years by NOAA, in partnership with UW, Troutlodge Marine and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, has given us the ability to produce sablefish fingerlings in a more economical and efficient way,” Young explains. “This provides a path for the commercial grow out of this species by Pacific Northwest tribes to produce a healthy and native seafood product for our local communities.”

Working from the NWFSC research station in Manchester, Washington, the investigators are now producing sablefish larvae at commercial scales by fine-tuning several strategies. First, they reduced feeding costs substantially by increasing rearing temperatures and shortening the length of the larval rearing phase. After the first week of larval rearing, they introduced more-affordable clay as a substitute for expensive green algae. The clay medium helps the fish larvae feed by creating a background against which they can better spot their prey. The researchers adopted a strategy of only producing female sablefish because females grow faster. To improve egg quality and fertilization rates, the scientists tested the storage of eggs in different solutions prior to fertilization — ultimately, they tested a solution containing sablefish serum that enhanced fertility by 20 percent. Finally, the researchers successfully tested a vaccine to protect against common diseases. 

Dr. Rick Goetz, Director of the Marine Finfish and Shellfish Biology Program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is observing tiny zooplankton (rotifers), which serve as food for sablefish larvae grown at the Manchester Research Station (Port Orchard, WA). Photo by Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 2016.

The combined result of all these innovations has made it possible to produce more than 60,000 female fingerlings at a time. Last year, the team reached a milestone when they shipped 50,000 female fingerlings to Golden Eagle Sablefish to be reared in their facilities in Canada.

In 2016, the researchers shipped another small batch of fingerlings to Perciformes Group, a Texas-based company, and the small fish were grown out and ultimately marketed to top Washington, D.C., restaurants. Encouraged by the positive restaurant response, the Perciformes Group hosted a tasting event for Michelin star chefs — featuring the sablefish cooked by the Manchester researchers.

Growers can now access an impressive number of scientific publications to learn more about these innovations. “This body of work represents a lot of people putting in a lot of hours over a decade of research,” Goetz says. “We have it to a point now where it is reasonably easy to produce sablefish, so a commercial producer could do much more.”

By improving productivity, these researchers may help to introduce a new, healthy native product for local tribes and industry to develop — and provide the public with a tasty alternative to the standard seafood fare on the menu.