Sablefish (also known as black cod or butterfish) are a deepwater species native to the West Coast of the U.S. They are high in omega-3 fatty acids and have white firm flesh with superior quality and taste. While the landed weight of sablefish in the commercial fishery is not large compared with other fish, the exceptionally high value of this species ranks it 3rd in economic value behind walleye pollock and Pacific cod.
Wild sablefish populations are currently stable and harvest is not expected to increase. As a result, the wild product is limited, which creates strong interest in aquaculture of this species.
Aquaculture of sablefish is relatively new. Until recently, several challenges prevented U.S. growers from fully committing to grow sablefish in aquaculture operations, including the development of captive broodstocks and the high cost and duration of larval rearing
Through a NOAA National Sea Grant to the University of Washington, NOAA scientists are partnering with tribes, academia, and industry to address these challenges by developing and transferring research technologies to commercially produce sablefish.
For example, over the past 5 years, researchers at NOAA’s Manchester Research Station have been developing captive broodstocks and have also made significant advances in larval rearing techniques and in streamlining this costly phase. These improvements have included research on tank design, elevated temperatures to shorten the larval rearing phase, and the substitution of inexpensive alternatives (e.g., clay) in place of algae for producing opacity in rearing water during the live feed period.
In addition, NOAA researchers have developed the techniques to produce sablefish neomales (XX males) that can be used to make all-female stocks, and are currently producing approximately 10,000 all-female fingerlings per year to be reared to commercial harvest in net pens. Since sablefish females grow significantly faster than males, the ability to produce all-female product is a significant commercial advantage for aquaculture.
The technologies we’ve developed so far can significantly streamline the production of sablefish from the egg to fingerling stage. However, the growout of sablefish is currently absent in the U.S. In the Puget Sound, available net pen sites are monopolized with the growout of a non-native species, and no new commercial net pens for rearing any finfish aquaculture operations have been approved in Washington state for many decades due largely to a complex and costly regulatory permit approval process.
Future research endeavors could help establish a commercial net pen growout industry for sablefish by tribes in the Puget Sound region. NOAA scientists and partners are in the initial stages of proposing a pilot-scale project by the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, which would provide an initial net pen platform at the NOAA Manchester Research Station. Personnel from the tribe could grow the sablefish to harvest at the Manchester site, and tribal members would be trained in aquaculture production methods. The knowledge and profits derived from the sale of these fish could then be used by the tribe to establish net pen growout for sablefish at other appropriate sites in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
Pending funding, the proposal to develop this industry by native, coastal tribal communities could have a significant impact in creating jobs in fishing communities, producing healthful local seafood, revitalizing working waterfronts, and supporting traditional fishing communities.
NOAA’s Manchester Research Station
University of Washington
Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe