Alaska’s sablefish fishermen will go into the 2019 season in March with no change to their overall catch limit but some debate about the state of the stock.
Sablefish, also known as black cod, regularly opens to fishing in Alaska in March, at the same time as the halibut fishery. Commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska catch them using trawls, longlines or, in some areas, pots. Fishermen landed about 13,956 metric tons of them last year between the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands fisheries. (A metric ton is 2,204 pounds, making the catch last year about 30.7 million pounds.)
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages the species, voted to slightly increase the sablefish total allowable catch in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands — from 11,505 to 11,571 metric tons in the Gulf, from 1,464 to 1,489 metric tons in the Bering Sea and from 1,988 to 2,008 metric tons in the Aleutian Islands.
The increases were recommended by the council’s advisory panels, based on an observed increase in the fishery surveys conducted in 2016 and 2017. Researchers noted a 14 percent increase in the longline survey index from 2016-17, which built on a 28 percent increase from 2015–2016. The spawning biomass is expected to “increase rapidly from 2018 to 2022, then stabilize,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2018 assessment of the sablefish stock.
Alaska’s sablefish are a high-value species, but with a caveat — they’re far more valuable when they’re large. Fishermen can make $7 to 8 per pound when the fish is greater than a certain weight, but for small fish, they make less per pound. That’s driven by consumer preferences, said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the McDowell Group who tracks seafood markets.
Consumers in Europe, China and, increasingly, Middle Eastern countries like Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, are beginning to demand sablefish. However, Japan is far and away the biggest market for sablefish, 70 percent of which comes from Alaska, Evridge said. Japanese fishermen pioneered the fishery in Alaskan waters after World War II, and new generations have grown up developing a taste for sablefish.
“When we talk about sablefish, it’s all about Japan,” he said. “Japan continues to value that larger fish.”
Demand definitely weakened in 2018, pushing prices down after a peak year in 2017, Evridge said. Remaining inventory and high retail prices repressed demand last year, pushing down prices for fishermen in 2018. With roughly the same catch limit and relatively stable demand, the price trend should remain relative stable for the fish, he said.
International currency strengths also play a role — when the dollar is stronger against the yen, it makes things more expensive for Japanese consumers.
The slight TAC increase in 2019 follows an increase of about 14 percent from 2017-18. The surveys have continued to show an increasing abundance, with focus on the 2014 age class entering the spawning biomass. However, it doesn’t mean the news is completely rosy.
In the survey summary for 2017, the researchers recommended an acceptable biological catch, or ABC, less than the maximum permissible, albeit 14 percent higher than in 2016. That was because of uncertainty regarding the strong 2014 age class and the existing spawning biomass.
“While there are clearly positive signs of strong incoming recruitment, there are concerns regarding the lack of older fish and spawning biomass, the uncertainty surrounding the estimate of the strength of the 2014 year class, and the uncertainty about the environmental conditions that may affect the success of the 2014 year class,” the survey states. “These concerns warrant additional caution when recommending the 2018 and 2019 ABCs.”
Despite high numbers turning up in the surveys, some fishermen have reported seeing the opposite out on the fishing grounds. During the North Pacific council’s deliberations in December, two groups submitted public comments asking the council to keep the TAC at the current level because of concerns about the sustainability of the stock into the future.
Sablefish can be long-lived — the maximum recorded age is 94 years old, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service — with 40-year-old fish caught frequently in the commercial sector. They mature at approximately 5 to 7 years old, spawning annually after that, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, a group of stakeholders in the small-boat longline fleet, requested the council set the 2019 TAC equal to 2018. Because of the concern about the uncertainty of the incoming age class and the decline of mature spawning biomass, the group asked the council to limit increases to fishing for the coming year.
The North Pacific Fisheries Association, a commercial stakeholder group based in Homer, raised similar concerns in a letter to the council. Erik Velsko, a board member, said the catch per unit of effort where he fishes out of Homer has recently increased significantly, even in areas that were historically excellent fishing grounds. Other fishermen have said they’re seeing large numbers of juvenile sablefish, he said.
“I think it’s true, that age class is there, it’s just a question of whether those fish are going to grow up enough (to be part of the spawning biomass),” he said.
One of the major issues the council and fishermen are still dealing with in the sablefish fishery, though, is whale depredation. Longliners have long been frustrated by orcas and sperm whales arriving as they begin hauling in lines and stripping the fish from their hooks, causing them to lose hours of effort and thousands of dollars.
The federal surveys and recommendations account for whale depredation as part of the fishery now — based on existing data, researchers estimated the total whale depredation on the fishery in Alaska at 371 metric tons, according to the 2017 survey.
To combat the problem, some fishermen have begun switching to using pots to catch sablefish instead, which the whales reportedly have not been able to break into yet.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]