THE STORY OF SABLEFISH
Despite the name Sitka Seafood Market, the waters off the shore of Alaska offer far more than just salmon. Some species, like albacore tuna or Dungeness crab, need no introduction. Other species, such as lingcod and rockfish, are little known outside of fishing communities and seafood aficionados. Wild sablefish fall into this latter category. They are a species with a fascinating story that we hope you’ll share with friends and family across the dinner table.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
In the Pacific Ocean, sablefish are found from Baja California up to the Bering Sea and back down to northern Japan. Like many fish that travel across culinary and geographic borders, sablefish are known by many names—their dark coloration earned the fish titles like black cod, coalfish, bluefish, and, of course, sablefish.
Sablefish inhabit the depths (82-820 fathoms) of the continental shelf, and thus, they are loaded with insulating fats in the form of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, they have the highest omega-3 content of any white fish. Because of their rich flesh—equivalent to king salmon in fat content—they are also commonly called butterfish and candlefish.
Nearly every culture that lives near waters inhabited by sablefish has a deep history with the species, but prior to the 1990s, most sablefish caught in American waters were exported to Japan, where they are celebrated as a delicacy. Americans took little notice of the species until the late 20th century. All that changed due to the efforts of a single Japanese chef: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Better known as Nobu, the chef began to offer the fish at his eponymously-named restaurant in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Nobu’s name has been irrevocably linked with that of sablefish (black cod) ever since.
In his memoir, Nobu wrote about how, as a young chef, he recognized that American eaters loved tender-fleshed species such as salmon and tuna. Sushi was exploding in popularity and Americans were rediscovering seafood after years of associating it with cans or lifeless fishsticks served in cafeterias and drowned in sauce. He wanted to develop a new dish that would both please the American palate and distinguish itself from the popular culinary currents.
“I went to the market to search for types of fish that would please them,” he wrote. “There I found frozen black cod, which was quite cheap.” Nobu developed a fusion dish that preserved the spirit of traditional Japanese preparations.
Sablefish has a deep, distinctive flavor profile that poses a challenge in the kitchen. For centuries, Japanese chefs have balanced tart, savory, and sweet flavors against the sablefish’s natural flavor. Traditionally, Japanese chefs marinated sablefish in a salt brine in preparation for the main flavoring agent: a thick solution of miso paste and sake kasu, the doughy by-product of the fermentation process that transforms rice into sake. After marinating for as long as a week, the sablefish is ready to panfry, broil, or grill over high heat.
Try our very own Nobu-style sablefish recipe with quick pickles by Culinary Director Grace Parisi.
Nobu simplified the preparation by replacing the sake kasu with mirin, a sweet rice wine, and reducing the marinade from a week to overnight. When grilled or broiled, the sablefish was succulent and exploded with flavor. The balance of sweet mirin and savory miso tamed sablefish for the American palate and Nobu’s restaurant became fashionable among such trendsetters as actor Robert De Niro, who succeeded in luring Nobu (and his sablefish) to New York City.
Together with De Niro, Nobu launched a chain of restaurants and hotels that reached beyond the United States, opening properties in London, Paris, and Manila. The humble sablefish was the foundation for this luxury hospitality empire. Not bad for an otherwise ugly fish.
In Alaska, salmon are celebrated in art and painted onto commercial aircraft, but sablefish are also critical to the success of small-boat fishing communities. No other fish, not even salmon, demand a higher price per pound than sablefish.
Today’s sablefish fishery is the product of tough lessons. Sablefish suffered from overfishing in the 1970s when they were caught “derby style.” Under this form of management, the fishery would open for several days without limit. This incentivized long hours and dizzying speeds for boat crews to catch as many fish as possible in the time allotted.
Managers estimated the amount that crews might catch and adjusted the time allotted to maintain healthy fish stocks, but commercial fishermen often exceeded expectations. Safety also suffered, as crews ventured into raging seas or worked days on end without sleep in order to catch as many fish as possible.
By the mid-1990s, fishery managers moved sablefish to a quota-based system in the interest of fish populations and the health of the fishermen. Under this system, each fisherman is apportioned a catch limit, or quota, based on scientific recommendations and can seek the fish from spring through the autumn months. In Southeast Alaska, no single fisherman can catch more than 1 percent of the quota, preventing consolidation of the fishery. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council monitor sablefish populations and protect the species from overfishing. Science-based management and small-boat fishermen have returned sablefish populations to above target levels and prevent overfishing.
Fishermen in Southeast Alaska use longlines anchored to the seafloor and baited with hooks to catch these bottom-dwelling fish. Although they no longer have to compete against one another for their share, fishermen like our own Stu Weathers are encountering a different form of competition for sablefish.
“I remember the first time I saw a sperm whale, in 1994, or so,” Stu remembers. “We were like, ‘oh, wow, a sperm whale!’” The magic quickly faded. Sperm whales use their powerful echolocation to identify fishing gear and pluck sablefish right off a fisherman’s line. “They’re robbing your gear, and you put thousands of dollars in bait, dozens of hours of labor into it, and you go out there and the whales are just eating all your fish,” Stu says. “It's pretty hard on morale.”
Stu didn’t dwell on his misfortune for long and began experimenting with gear usually suited for crustaceans: pots. These traps, called “slinky pots,” look like upscale versions of collapsible laundry baskets that target sablefish—they can swim in but they can’t swim out.
Stu loves applying technology to solve these types of problems. “These pots are really cool. They don’t take up much space and are lightweight.” Stu says he still gets visits from whales, but they don’t cause him anxiety anymore. “Last year a couple of sperm whales came up and hung around for about ten minutes and then they left, so it works.”
KNOW YOUR FISH
Like with salmon, we leave pin bones in our sablefish portions to maintain their quality and shape. Although it is easy to simply eat around pin bones, our culinary team developed a detailed guide for removing them.
About 1 in 100 sablefish have a genetic characteristic known as “jelly belly.” These fish lack an enzyme that makes their meat hold up to the heat of cooking. As a result, sablefish with jelly belly will disintegrate while cooking and are inedible. The experience is frustrating, but our Salmon Support Team will refund your order if you experience a portion of jelly belly sablefish.
Wild sablefish have a rich culinary tradition and provide financial stability to small-boat communities throughout Alaska. The story of sablefish reminds us that building a better seafood system takes many different skill sets. Fishermen, chefs, marine biologists, inventors, and even sake brewers all have a role to play. You also get to participate because they all rely on adventurous seafood lovers to support and sustain the market. We invite you to explore the rich flavor of this special fish that has won the hearts of seafood lovers the world over. Stay wild!