Sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), known regionally as black cod, are the highest valued finfish per pound in Alaska. They live at depth of over 3,000 feet, and have been observed swimming merely a meter from the ocean floor. They range from the Northeast Pacific Ocean, to Mexico, Japan, the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. However, the highest concentrations of sablefish can be found in Alaskan waters. Sablefish feed on a variety of other fish, octopus, squid, crab and shrimp, reaching an average length of 27.5 inches and weight of 7.5 pounds. They are also long-living fish, with the average adult caught in its 40s and some reaching over 90 years of age.
Sablefish are prized for their rich, buttery flavor. They have an extremely high oil content, and are an ideal smoking fish. They also contain high levels of long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids, in the same league as wild salmon.
The Alaskan sablefish fisheries are managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in State waters and by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in federal waters. The dominant gear type in both fisheries is longline. State water fisheries are managed with a limited entry equal share system and federal waters are managed with an Individual Fish Quota, or IFQ system. Under the limited entry program, each permit holder is assigned an equal amount of the total allowable catch for the year; under the IFQ system, fishermen may own more or less quota and can buy or sell quota to increase their share of the total.
An annual stock assessment of sablefish abundance is conducted in both State and federal waters. Sablefish stocks are currently at low abundance levels due to the absence of strong year classes, or annual batches of newly born fish, in recent years. Catch limits have been substantially reduced to conserve stocks. Recent reports indicate that one or two strong year classes may be on the way, so fishermen may need to tighten their belts for a few years but the future holds strong potential!
Sperm Whale Predation
Over the past decade, sperm whales have developed a knack for taking sablefish off longlines. The whales recognize that when a boat runs out to the sablefish grounds and starts to haul a longline (a sound the whales detect by the boat shifting in and out of gear), easy and delicious pickings are available. Whale depredation can cost fishermen thousands in lost fishing time and poses a safety risk to both whales and fishermen. In 2003 ALFA and scientists formed the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project (SEASWAP) to work on understanding whale predation and developing deterrent or avoidance strategies. This unique collaboration of fishermen and scientists have worked together ever since. You can learn more about SEASWAP by vising our Whale Avoidance page or the SEASWAP project website.
use of pot gear
The North Pacific Management Council recently voted to legalize the use of pot gear in the Gulf of Alaska sablefish fishery. The Council took this action at the request of some fishermen who consider pots to be the only effect strategy for stopping whale predation. ALFA opposed legalizing pots because most small boats cannot safely fish pots and because lost pots pose a significant hazard to the resource and the longline fleet. Although the Council moved ahead with an amendment to allow pots, the Council voted to set lower pot limits for the Southeast and West Yakutat Alaska areas, and will require pots to be removed from the grounds when a vessel operating in these areas delivers fish to a processor. The regulations to allow pot gear will likely be in place by June or July 2016.
The Council will assess the effects of allowing sablefish pot gear in the Gulf of Alaska in three years. The Council is encouraging IFQ holders to work cooperatively to develop protocols for tracking and sharing the location of pots being fished and/or pots left on fishing grounds.
The limits and requirements proposed for fishing sablefish pots are as follows:
- Limit of 120 pots per vessel in West Yakuat and Southeast Outside (120 pots/vessel/area).
- Limit of 300 pots per vessel in the Western and Central Gulf (300 pots /vessel/area).
- Identification tags required on each pot. Pot tags must be attached to the vessel’s pots before the vessel leaves port. Pots registered to one vessel must be returned to shore before being tagged to another vessel.
- Each pot must be tagged with vessel identification before the vessel leaves port.
- Gear cannot be left for more than 7 days without being “moved” (run) in WY, CGOA, WGOA
- Gear cannot be left on the fishing grounds when a vessel to which the pots are registered leaves the grounds to make a delivery.
- All sablefish pots set in the GOA must be removed prior to the end of the season and cannot be set before the beginning of the sablefish season.
Require both ends of the sablefish pot longline gear to be marked with a 4 buoy cluster including a hard ball with PL marking on one buoy, flagpoles and radar reflectors, including ADFG number and vessel identification on buoys.
Retention of Halibut
Allow the retention of incidentally caught halibut in sablefish pots provided the sablefish IFQ holder also holds sufficient halibut IFQ and IPHC defines pots as a legal gear for halibut.
All vessels using longline pot gear are required to maintain logbooks and use VMS (data fields will be added to logbooks to report notice of landing of pot caught fish and to report number of pots and number of lost pots.)
Click here to read the 2016 Black Cod Almanac.
You can find the NOAA Plan Team presentation from 2015 here for more information.
Click here for presentation slides from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the status of Northern Southeast Inside (NSEI) sablefish.
Click here for presentation slides from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Stock assessment methods for the Chatham Strait sablefish population.
Banner image credit ASMI/Joshua Roper Photography