Buyers pay a premium for sablefish from Alaska because these fish are larger (5-7 lbs.) and thus considered to have a higher oil content than smaller sablefish from the U.S. West Coast (2-3 lbs.). Some longliners typically bleed and freeze their fish at-sea, resulting in a high-quality product at a higher price. Canadian trap-caught sablefish tends to be larger and is considered very high quality. Trawl-caught sablefish is rarely bled and prone to bruising, resulting in lower quality and price.
Sablefish grow quickly, up to 3 feet in length. Females are able to reproduce when they are about 6-1/2 years old and over 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 over 2,000 miles in 6 or 7 years. Sablefish can live to be over 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, seabirds, sharks, and whales feed on sablefish.
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 650+ feet deep. Some have been found as deep as 9,800 feet. Juvenile sablefish live near the surface in nearshore waters.
Science & Management
NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center assesses the abundance of sablefish through annual longline surveys. Scientists also conduct trawl surveys to assess abundance every 2 or 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.
The Alaska sablefish population is at 9 percent above its target level. The west coast sablefish population is at 84 percent of its target level.
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.
NOAA Fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Alaska fisheries) and Pacific Fishery Management Council (west coast fisheries) manage the various sablefish fisheries.
Current management in Alaska is covered under the 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.
Current management on the West Coast is covered under the 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.
Sablefish, found in the northeastern Pacific Ocean are a very long-lived species, which, along with other factors, makes them inherently vulnerable to fishing pressure. The most recent stock assessments for the U.S. West Coast and Alaskan sablefish populations showed that it is not overfished or experiencing overfishing, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported that sablefish stock indices have shown a general decline between 2003 and 2012. A Seafood Watch report from 2014 also noted a downward trend in the West Coast sablefish population over the past 40 years and gave it a moderate stock status concern rating.
Habitat impacts ( Wild)
Most of the sablefish harvest in Alaska is done using longlines, a method considered to cause minimal impact. Pots are increasingly used to catch sablefish in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, but there are still so few that there’s little information on the impact, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
Trawls are among the gear used to catch sablefish along the U.S. West Coast, which can cause damage to sensitive seafloor habitats, although they are prohibited in certain areas. Handlines and traps are also used.
Bycatch in the sablefish fishery is considered moderate and includes giant grenadier and arrowtooth flounder as well as species of rockfishes that are currently overfished, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Bycatch of seabirds, including endangered birds, has dropped significantly due to improved management measures such as streamer lines to keep birds away from baited hooks. Seafood Watch noted in 2014 reports that there are few true “bycatch” species caught in substantial amounts across all groundfish fisheries.
Sablefish was previously overexploited, but is now considered to be effectively managed. The Alaska sablefish fishery is managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which uses individual fishing quotas to ensure the fishery remains sustainable.
On the West Coast, sablefish are managed with the groundfish fishery. Management measures include area closures and an individual fishery quota system. Seafood Watch reports from 2014 called the West Coast groundfish fishery management strong because it includes updated stock assessments, biomass reference points, harvest control rules, and incorporation of uncertainty when determining catch limits.
In Canada, the sablefish fishery is managed by the Canadian Sablefish Association and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Measures include stock assessments, limited entry, gear restrictions, area closures, size limits, and a total allowable catch established through the Commercial Groundfish Integration Program.