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Product Spotlight: Sablefish

High Japanese demand keeps U.S. supply low

Farmed sablefish from British Columbia may ease
    pressure on Alaska's wild supply. - Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing
By April Forristall
August 01, 2008

In 2002, trade and consumer restaurant magazines pegged sablefish as the next "hot" fish. Six years later, results are mixed on whether the species, also known as black cod or butterfish, will fulfill that prediction.

Sablefish's popularity escalated when sustainability organizations touted it as a replacement for species like Chilean sea bass, which is subject to poaching.

"Sablefish was a great answer to Chilean sea bass when the issues started arising … it was a great opportunity because it provided the same nice buttery, fatty, oil content," says Wade Wiestling, VP of culinary development at The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Minneapolis.

"All the sablefish used to go to Japan. Now a lot more is going into the U.S. market because chefs discovered it," says Laura Fleming, media relations director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

However, despite rising domestic demand, about three-quarters of the world's sablefish supply ends up in Japan.

"The vast majority goes to Japan. I don't know if U.S. interest would ever compete," says Richard Martin, president of Martin International Corp. in Boston. "I don't know that there's enough tonnage in the United States [to allow it to enter the mainstream market]."

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, landings of Alaska sablefish through July 15 totaled 19.7 million pounds, roughly two-thirds of the 30-million-pound total allowable catch (TAC) for the 2008 season. Like halibut, sablefish is an IFQ (individual fishing quota) fishery.

Sablefish imports from Canada through May totaled 174,875 pounds, more than 100,000 pounds less last year.

Sablefish landings have a distinct peak in the spring. The fishery kicks off in mid-March, but more than half of the TAC is landed between April and June, with 20 percent or more normally landed in May and June. The sablefish TAC has been declining moderately, but steadily, from the 12-year high in 2004 of 38 million pounds.

Fleming isn't worried about the slight supply reductions.

"Seasonality and fluctuating harvest from year to year are a part of wild capture fisheries, and sustainability has its own built-in price," she says. "If the number of fish goes down, the fisheries manager will err on the side of caution and reduce the commercial harvest."

One Canadian aquaculture company aims to supplement the wild sablefish supply with farmed product.

Kyuquot Sound Sablefish put its first fish in the water in 2005.

"Sablefish is one of the most valuable whitefish from an aquaculture point of view," says Bruce Morton, president of Kyuquot Sound in British Columbia. "It's interesting, because there are two markets: the Asian market and the Western white tablecloth. The Eastern market will pay premium; they adore the fish."

But Joe Collins, Kyuquot Sound's sales and marketing manager, says that the farm is still in its early stages and they don't yet have the supply to develop a significant U.S. market. The company currently sells about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds in the country weekly and, he says, "it's slowly gaining speed. It's new and exciting and it's been a long time since there's been a new farmed fish for mass market."

The sablefish market is sensitive to supply, and with the Alaska TAC reduction in 2008, prices appear to be responding.

Alaska sablefish wholesaled for about $5.99 a pound 10 years ago, and now the price is north of $10, notes Wiestling. Oceanaire's locations in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Orlando, Fla., Houston and Seattle menu sablefish. While the increase signals a rise in recognition, the cost is still too hefty for casual-dining restaurants and conventional supermarkets. But the species, at $26 to $36 a plate, excels in the whitetablecloth arena.

"When we have [sablefish], it sells like wildfire. It's so mild and rich and buttery, and it's got a nice tender flake to it," says Wiestling. "Guests who have had it before will come back for it."

And Martin, whose company distributes the fish to both foodservice clients and under the Black Pearl brand to retail markets, including Whole Foods, says the species' popularity has "grown and grown." Price may keep sablefish out of casual restaurants and mainstream supermarkets, but Martin is seeing positive results in large retail outlets, pointing out that sales have increased 10 to 15 percent.

Sablefish probably won't leave the fine-dining niche any time soon, but the days of people only seeing it as a substitute for Chilean sea bass are waning. Sablefish is one of the most highly valued fish in Alaska, and eventually aquaculture efforts may lessen supply issues and help the fish reach a broader audience.


Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom .com


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