Though sales have been declining in Japan, growing demand for blackcod in domestic markets should keep prices firm for West Coast fishermen in the year ahead.

“The market is steady,” says Scott Adams, operation and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston, Ore.

Japan continues to take the bulk of West Coast and Alaska blackcod. According to NMFS foreign trade data, U.S. frozen blackcod exports to Japan tallied up to 3.65 million kilos in 2016, which is down from 4.71 million kilos in 2015 and 5.13 million kilos in 2014. The values of the exports for that same period slipped from around $59.5 million to $47.8 million; however, the drop in overall export value corresponds with less volume and not the price per kilo, which has risen from around $11 to $13 per kilo during the same period.

Though Japan still takes the brunt of production from the West Coast and Alaska, burgeoning outlets in the Pacific Northwest are absorbing increasing volumes.

“Japan takes the bulk of our product, but we sell fish every day to local markets,” says Adams. Seattle has become a mainstay for West Coast seafood companies like Hallmark.

“People have discovered that it’s a superfish, with all the great oils,” says Adams. “It’s good grilled, pickled, baked.”

To that end, aquaculture interests continue their pursuit of farming blackcod in pens. Though the effort to farm the fish began around 2000 with questionable results in terms of economic feasibility, new research by NOAA aims to produce market-sized fish in 24 months. Blackcod in the 5-to-7-pound range are considered optimum, and most recent developments center on raising females, which grow faster than males.

Farmed blackcod threaten both the Alaska and West Coast industries.

“We see the problem of sablefish farms the same as what we saw happen to salmon,” says Bob Alverson, manager of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association. “Once the science is developed, the logical place to put a pen is in a third-world country.”

Alverson and others fear the eventual development of farms will supply markets in Japan, Asia and elsewhere and drive prices down for wild product coming out of the West Coast and Alaska.

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Charlie Ess is the North Pacific Bureau Chief for National Fisherman.

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