Fish Talk: How It's Caught: Wild Alaskan Halibut & Sablefish (Black Cod)
It’s been a long winter, but the daylight hours are waxing on every day, just like the itch to get back out on the ocean. The heavy frost that greets the dawn shows less and less with each passing week. More signs of an ocean coming out of hibernation hint towards the coming bloom of spring. The herring are starting to show in the harbor, and the Longtailed Ducks that have taken refuge all winter long in our protected waters have moved on. Whales, sea lions and countless sea birds have made their way from far and wide in anticipation of the coming feast of herring during the massive spawn in April.
There’s also been a lot of boat projects to do during the dark months while the weather wasn’t cooperative, and we've got them about licked. Now it’s time to turn attention toward the upcoming seasons, and prepare for each one as much as possible. The work done on board each vessel is as varied as the species of fish harvested for Catch Sitka. When the fishing is good you want to have as much done up front as possible, instead of wasting precious fishing weather getting gear and equipment sorted out when it could have been done during the pre-season.
The reason why it’s so important to get gear for the various fisheries in order now is because many seasons overlap. The choice to fish for one type of fish instead of another is based on how well each fishery is doing and the dock prices (that’s the price each boat gets paid for the fish). If the summer coho fishing isn’t quite what it could be, it will be easy to switch over to halibut for a week or 10 days if the opportunity presents itself. Let’s take a look at two of the fisheries on the list to prepare for.
Wild Alaskan Halibut and Sablefish (Black Cod)
Historically, since about the early 90’s, mid-March has been the kickoff of the Wild Alaska Halibut and Wild Alaskan Sablefish (Black Cod) seasons. The season for both fish typically runs through the middle of November – that means there is a 9 month long season to catch these fish! Most fisherfolk will be set up to fish both halibut and sablefish at the same time, or nearly so. There used to be a lot of the same gear used by both fisheries, but the times are changing.
Hook and line was the rule for both halibut and black cod (sablefish) - we’d just use slightly different setups to target each species in very different depths. Halibut is much the same, but for sablefish (black cod) we are changing up the game. Whale issues have gotten very severe in the Wild Alaska Black Cod fishery over the last few years. Now, this isn’t an entanglement issue like you may have heard about on some of the lower 48 fisheries. This is a problem to do with sperm whales and their voracious appetites. You see, Catch Sitka customers aren’t the only customers for the extremely rich and nutritious Wild Alaskan Sablefish. The Northern Pacific Sperm Whale has figured out how to participate in some fine dining on our sablefish as we pull them to the surface. It has to do with the way a longline set-up works, let us explain a bit.
When a traditional longline is set down for either halibut or sablefish, there is a buoy on each end that floats on the ocean’s surface. That’s how we find and retrieve the longline gear. Halibut is typically fished shallower than 600 feet deep. Sablefish live in very deep water, however, so for that fishery we can have up to a half-mile or more of line between the buoy and the first anchor below. From the anchor, running along the bottom, is roughly 1-3 miles of ground-line with the baited hooks on it. Halibut hook spacing is roughly a hook every 10-12 feet. For sablefish, however, the usual set up is a hook every 42” or so (that is a LOT of hooks to bait by hand for every set, about 3400 hooks per two nautical mile set). At the end of the baited groundline is another anchor, which is attached to another long buoy line that runs to the surface. A condensed version of a groundline setup looks something like this-
The image above is still how those tasty wild Alaskan halibut are brought to your table. We don’t see the whale problem with the halibut in the areas we fish in Southeast Alaska. Sablefish, however, are another story.
Imagine this - after the tedious work to bait and carefully, and safely, space the number of hooks required to reach the depths of the Wild Alaskan Sablefish- the line is taken to sea and set, deep in the ocean, to catch sablefish, the baited hooks are then left to “soak,” for a bit, before being hauled back up. To do this one of the buoys is located and brought on board. The crew then runs the line the buoy is attached to through the “hauler,” a large hydraulic motor with a wheel on it that grips the line tight between two plates. The hauler pulls the line up, lifting the anchor off of the bottom. Of course, what is attached to the anchor (our baited groundline, hopefully loaded with sablefish) also comes to the surface. Once all of the buoy line has been brought aboard, followed by the anchor, we start to see the fish coming to the surface. We’re hoping for a nice catch of these delicious deepwater sablefish to deliver to the Catch Sitka dock back home.
This is where the Sperm whale gets involved. It would be nothing for one of these deep diving whales to head to the bottom themselves to get a tasty sablefish snack on his own. However, the baited groundline just made life much easier for them. Imagine that long string of fish coming up from the bottom of the ocean, right to our waiting boat. It probably looks like a perfect chow line to a sperm whale. When they locate a boat hauling gear, all they have to do is hold below the boat and pluck the sablefish off like grapes while the humans above keep hauling the loaded line up to them. This is called, “Getting Whaled.” When we get “whaled,” it is devastating to the gear, morale, and the boat’s profitability. On the boat, you can literally feel those whales plucking fish off the line below while you race to get as many sablefish aboard as possible. Most of the time, when a whale rips a sablefish off of a hook, it straightens out the hook and makes it useless for future fishing. The cost of getting whaled includes the damaged gear, the bait purchased to send down on the hooks, the time lost in both setting and retrieving the gear, plus the countless hours spent each year switching out hooks and repairing gangions (the line that attaches the hook to the mainline). "Getting Whaled," is very bad for small boat fisherfolk.
Sablefish as a staple was starting to look bleak, until the National Marine Fisheries Service approved “pot” fishing for sablefish a few years ago. This was a game changer for our small fleet. To pot fish, we connect roughly 60 evenly spaced pots to our groundline instead of the hooks we had baited. These pots are basically fish traps, with an enclosed area that the bait is hung in and two cones with a small opening at the pointed end of the cone that the fish need to swim through to get inside. The openings in the cones are very difficult for the fish to find again, so they become trapped inside the pot. The sablefish don’t seem to mind pushing their way through the cone into a pot to get at the bait. Once we’ve let them “soak” we haul them back just like a baited longline. The difference is that instead of a long string of fish hanging below the boat, there are a bunch of traps hanging off the main line. Best of all, the sperm whales haven’t figured out how to open those pots yet! We won’t put it past them completely, however, since they are extremely smart animals.
The costs associated to get set up for pot fishing sablefish are high. The pots themselves can run $20-40K for a full setup in southeast Alaska (near $100K for a setup farther out west where more pots are allowed), and there is a lot of custom fabrication work that needs to be done to a boat to get the deck situated correctly for the pots. That is a big chunk of change for small-timers like our artisanal fleet, and we rely on a steady sablefish market like Catch Sitka to keep buying the fish we have so heavily invested in catching. The main benefit of not getting “whaled” is worth it, but there are some great additional benefits too. Pot fishing for sablefish is a much less frantic fishery, and when your actions on a pitching and rolling boat deck can be more methodical and measured, you have less chance of injury. Every time we pull into town with all the crew in the same condition as when we left (well, except being exhausted) it's a huge win.
Stay tuned next month for more Fish Talk, we will be exploring Wild Alaskan Lingcod!
If you liked this and want to learn more, check out Fish Talk: A Tale of Two Cods. For great recipes be sure to check out our Recipe Box! Pro Tip: You can search any species using the magnifying glass in the menu to bring up recipes and more!