COOS BAY, Ore. - Commercial fishermen from Alaska to California used to rely on the Japanese market to buy up tons of black cod, but sales to Japan are down 40 percent this season as that country's economy has lagged.
So resourceful Pacific Northwest wholesalers have turned to other markets to plug the gap, and are finding success in big cities around the country, from Seattle to Los Angeles and beyond.
In Southeast Alaska, almost all of the harvested black cod is still sold to Japan, but some fish are starting to wend their way to the Lower 48, seafood industry officials said last week.
Black cod, also called sablefish, is a natural substitute for a popular fish that many consider unsustainable: Chilean sea bass.
The Chilean sea bass, though highly desirable in U.S. markets, faces a potential world-wide crash in the future due to overfishing and poaching. It has a very similar flavor and texture to black cod, said Eric Norman, general manager of Taku Smokeries/Fisheries in Juneau.
"It's done very, very well for us," said Randy Ferris, the seafood team leader for the Bellevue, Wash., Whole Foods Market.
Ferris said that though he's been selling black cod to domestic consumers for the last 10 years or so, it has only been the last three or four years that consumer demand for sablefish has "really taken off."
Sablefish is one of the more than 80 groundfish species. It lives in deep ocean areas and is caught by trawl, trap and longline methods. The three West Coast states, in which about 350 fishermen have sablefish permits, bring in about 12.5 million pounds of sablefish a year, though Alaska's resource is much larger. British Columbia, too, has a strong commercial fishery.
The total value of sablefish has risen in the last couple years as well: Fish caught off the West Coast have brought in $17 million. In Oregon in 2004, sablefish alone was worth $7 million; one-third of the value of all groundfish deliveries.
Consumers want a fish that is, by comparison to salmon or tuna, drab and not colorful because beneath its plain blackish skin is the meat of the fish that's full of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and has a rich, buttery flavor, Ferris said.
Recently, the weekly limits in Oregon were increased for some fishermen and the price also has risen: Oregon sablefish delivered whole can garner about $2 a pound; cleaned fish can get as much as $4 a pound. One week's worth of sablefish could deliver a gross $3,000 to $6,000 paycheck.
Prices in Juneau for black cod were as high as $5 per pound.