Whether you go into a seafood restaurant to explore the sushi menu or you want the catch of the day at a luxury restaurant, sablefish can cost a significant amount of money.
The fish, also known as black cod, is not seen on many menus, so when you find it, you might be tempted to spend the money regardless of what it costs.
The question you have to ask yourself is why it can cost so much more than other types of fish, even at the same restaurant.
Why Is Sablefish So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. It’s Extremely Flavorful
Sablefish is unique because it is a whitefish that is also extremely high in fat.
This provides a rich, buttery flavor that is highly desirable in many dishes.
Sablefish, also known as Black Cod or Alaska Cod, has also been given the name butterfish due to its flavor.
The high amount of fat allows it to stay moist regardless of how you cook it.
This allows you to enjoy the rich flavors no matter how you decide to work with them.
2. It’s Sustainable
In an effort to be more eco-friendly, sustainability is a growing trend.
Sustainability is about not depleting natural resources.
Many people around the world depend on seafood for nutrition.
Approximately 90 percent of fish populations are being fished beyond their sustainable limits.
If we don’t focus on sustainability, there won’t be fish for future generations.
By choosing fish that is provided in a sustainable manner, you can do your part.
For the most part, sablefish is a sustainable option in comparison to other species of fish.
You can almost always order sablefish confidently knowing that it is environmentally friendly.
Many fisheries will be eco-rated and certified by Seafood Watch and other organizations.
It is what helps you to know that the fish is sustainable.
To obtain these certifications, fisheries have to make investments.
They invest in equipment, monitoring tools, and more.
Additionally, fisheries have to make hard decisions.
They may have to stop after catching a certain number of sablefish.
They may have to move onto a different species, even after they’ve set up hooks and traps.
Having a strategy is what is eco-friendly.
These strategies can also be expensive to maintain.
Seafood sustainability practices are like many other eco-friendly practices.
They are necessary to protect the planet.
However, they come at a cost in order to provide that protection.
Most wild-caught sablefish are a smart choice because there’s a significant amount of sustainability management, which is regulated by both the U.S. and Canada.
3. It’s Highly Versatile
Sablefish is highly sought after due to its versatility.
Some fish can only be prepared in one or two way
Some kinds of fish are not very forgiving if you don’t cook them properly.
Sablefish has such a high-fat content that it is actually very forgiving.
Even novice chefs can figure out how to cook sablefish.
The fat will help to keep the fish moist, so if it is overcooked, it is still edible.
Various dry-heat methods can be used with sablefish due to the higher fat content.
This includes both smoking and grilling.
While the fish is versatile, there are large pin bones that need to be removed.
The pin bones are found along the curved spine in the centerline of the fish.
Needle-nosed pliers should be used to remove the pin bones.
If you aren’t a trained chef, you can enjoy the versatility of the fish by buying the fillets already prepared (and deboned).
This will cost more, but it will also make it easier for you to focus on cooking instead of preparing.
Sablefish can be enjoyed raw.
It won’t taste good prepared as ceviche, but it can be served as sushi or crudo.
Just a sprinkle of sea salt and a splash of lemon can lead to a delicious meal.
A fillet of sable can go onto a hot grill without it turning to jerky.
A bit of flavoring and the fish can be placed into a smoker for a low and slow approach, too.
Pan-roasted is the most common preparation.
It will give you a rich mouth feel so that you can enjoy the natural, buttery flavor.
As you begin working with sablefish more, you’ll grow experimental.
That’s when you may feel more confident trying a confit.
If you’re a fan of cooking tuna in oil, you’ll love it with sablefish.
4. It’s Hard To Catch
There’s an entire process to catching sablefish.
You can use hooks or traps.
However, due to the depths that you’ll be fishing at, this is typically left to professional fishermen who are on specially rigged boats.
British Columbia is where most of the sablefish/black cod fishing happens.
Traps made of conical-shaped steel frames are typically set, which are covered by nylon netting.
Fish are attracted to the bait.
They are then led to a tunnel where the traps are.
The traps are anchored to the seafloor with the help of a long line.
Since sablefish live on the ocean floor, the longline may be as long as two miles.
Then, hooks are fastened along the way.
It’s not uncommon for fishermen to have 2,000 hooks on a single line.
Depending on the age of the fish (sablefish have a relatively long life), they can weigh between 10 and 100 pounds.
In addition to catching the fish, there’s a long and drawn-out process that is required by the government.
Those catching sablefish are limited by the species that they can catch.
Those who are out on the boats for sablefish can also bring in a few other types of fish, including cod, rockfish, and flatfish, but the species matter.
There is dockside monitoring of the catch being unloaded.
There is also electronic monitoring onboard.
Further, there’s individual vessel accountability.
With all of the requirements, not all fishermen will target sablefish.
It can be expensive to outfit the boat, and there can be a lot of paperwork.
Since it is one of the more difficult fish to catch, it limits the number of fish harvesters who actively participate.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages the stock to determine how much sablefish should and can be caught in a single season.
5. It’s Not Easy To Find
Sablefish aren’t the kind of fish that you’ll catch on a traditional fishing trip.
You won’t be able to hook one sitting on a pier.
Even if you go out on a fishing charter, it’s unlikely that you’ll find one.
These are deep-water fish.
On top of that, they are bottom feeders.
You’re typically going to find them at depths of 1,600 to 3,300 feet.
This requires a very specific type of rig.
There’s a season for sablefish, which opens at the end of March/early April every year.
It can be difficult to get a large number of sablefish during this time.
Also, in addition to what happens when you do catch them, there are various conservation measures in play.
There are restrictions on the size of the fish as well as catch limits that are strictly monitored every year.
Due to the difficulty of finding sablefish in the wild, only about 35 vessels actively fish for this species on an annual basis.
6. Shipping Costs Are High
The majority of the sablefish is found in Alaska and throughout the Pacific Northwest.
As soon as you venture outside of this area, it has to be shipped.
You’ll spend more to enjoy this fish because a restaurant will have to pay for it to be shipped—either fresh or frozen.
When you’re going with fresh, the fish has to be sent overnight, and that will include even higher costs.
Fresh fish can be shipped.
It can also be transported via carry-on and checked bags.
The TSA has specific requirements, which include that the fish must be completely frozen and that ice or ice packs are utilized.
Often, specific shipping and packing containers are used to keep fish as fresh as possible throughout the transport process.
Considering that some sablefish can weigh 100 pounds, the cost to ship or transport can be significant.
7. It’s A Healthy Choice
Sablefish are extremely healthy for several reasons.
While many people choose seafood because of its health benefits, sablefish is quite a catch.
First off, there are a lot of omega-3 fats in the sablefish, making it a great choice.
Omega-3 fatty acids should be incorporated into your diet throughout the week.
They can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease as well as sudden cardiac death, which can be caused by an abnormal heart rhythm.
Omega-3 fatty acids can also help to reduce blood clots and keep the lining of your arteries free of damage.
It reduces and eliminates plaque so that you can enjoy lower blood pressure.
Additionally, when you have a diet that is high in omega-3 fats, you’re likely to experience less inflammation.
It’s the good kind of fat that you should be prioritizing in the foods that you eat.
EPA and DHA fatty acids in sablefish can also improve your brain and respiratory system.
Vitamin B12 is abundant within this cold-water fish, too.
By enjoying more Vitamin B12, you can boost your metabolism, enjoy more energy, and ensure that your body is creating plenty of red blood cells.
You’ll also find that sablefish aren’t as high in mercury as many other types of fish.
This allows you to eat it two or three times a week (if you can afford it) without having to worry about any negative effects on your health.
Of course, the fish is only healthy based on how you eat it.
Grilling and smoking are some of the healthiest cooking techniques.
If you’re poaching it in butter or pouring a creamy sauce over the fillets, you’ll lose most of the health benefits.
One of the best ways to enjoy the health benefits of sablefish is via sushi.
Since the fish is served raw, you won’t lose any of the vitamins and minerals in the cooking process.
8. Supply & Demand
Much of the cost of sablefish comes down to simple economics.
Supply and demand rule all aspects of the seafood market.
When the supply is low and the demand is high, the costs are going to be considerably higher.
Suppliers know that they can increase the price because people will pay it.
The supply and demand can vary based on where you are, too.
If you’re in Vancouver or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, sablefish will be considerably more affordable.
That’s because everyone has a relatively decent supply of the fish.
It will still be expensive, but since there’s supply, it’s going to be reasonable.
If you’re along the Atlantic coast in, say, New York or Boston, there’s relatively no supply.
What supply there is has been sold to a restaurant or fish market.
They know that there’s still a demand for the black cod, so they can charge more.
Additionally, Alaskan sablefish are in high demand because the fish tend to be larger than what’s caught in British Columbia.
The larger fish is desirable because restaurants can label it as “Alaskan sablefish” and charge more.
The fisheries know this, too, and price the fish per pound accordingly.
It’s important to focus on supply and demand as it will impact what you pay by several dollars per pound.
Restaurants will often have a “fish of the day” which is based on market options.
The more readily available fish will be featured.
As fish become harder to obtain, you’ll see the market price go up.
Walk into any restaurant where there’s a sandwich board.
They’ll have the fish of the day listed along with the market price.
These are never printed on the menu.
The market price can change from day to day.
Knowing the season of sablefish will help you to understand the supply and, therefore, the demand.
There are two seasons: April through July and October through December.
If you buy sablefish outside of those months, you’ll pay dramatically more because there isn’t a sufficient supply.
9. Found In Luxury Restaurants
Not all chefs know how to work with sablefish.
It can be cooked in a variety of ways, but it is not something that you can substitute for most cod recipes on the market.
Most chefs choose to leave the skin on.
The whole fish can be cooked, or large fillets can be created.
Since it requires skill to work with, you will typically only find sablefish in luxury restaurants.
There will be a head chef who will work to find the best quality fish on the market.
There may even be a fishmonger on site who will have expertise with the fish.
Luxury restaurants are known for raising the price of menu items.
They get to charge a premium for the ambiance they’re creating.
You may also find that the fish is paired with other premium ingredients, ranging from freshly shaved truffles to caviar.
Depending on the exclusivity of the restaurant and the other ingredients used, it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to charge $40 or more for the dish.
The majority of restaurants that have sablefish will be located along the Pacific.
If you are lucky enough to find it inland or along the Atlantic coast, know that it has been shipped in.
Any time a restaurant has to pay to have fresh fish shipped in, it’s going to add to the cost.
The restaurant gets to brag that they have the fish.
They know that they have something special.
If it’s something you want, it’ll cost you.
It comes back to supply and demand.
10. Fishermen Are Focused On Other Fish
The fishermen who are out on the big boats have limited space for the fish that they catch.
Many will focus on the year-round fish that have the biggest payout.
This includes steelhead and salmon (both chinook and sockeye).
It’s easier to catch one salmon than one sablefish.
While sablefish can fetch more money, it’s often not worth the hassle.
As such, when the fishermen come back after weeks at sea, they won’t have as many sablefish.
It leads to the rarity of the fish and the higher pricing.
Alternatives To Sablefish
There are plenty of other fish that you can buy instead of sablefish, especially if you want to save a few dollars per pound.
It often comes down to flavor.
If you want a buttery flavor, Pacific cod and halibut are both desirable.
If you love the Omega-3 oiliness, you can try an oil-poached tuna.
Consider how you plan to use the sablefish.
Some Jewish delis will serve smoked sablefish.
You could easily choose sturgeon or lox (salmon).
Some restaurants will use Chilean sea bass when they can’t find sablefish.
It has a similar mouth feel and can also hold up to dry-heat cooking methods such as grilling and broiling.
How To Save On Sablefish
Sablefish isn’t quite like any other fish.
If you have grown to love the flavor, you’ll want to buy it as affordably as you can.
You’re not likely to find it on sale.
You won’t find coupons for it.
You do have options, however.
Consider getting friendly with some of the local fishermen who are going out on the boats.
See what you can trade so that you can get your hands on fresh sablefish.
If you’re not in the Pacific Northwest, one of the best options is to find frozen fillets.
Many times, companies will freeze and send them to grocery stores and seafood shops.
Ask your local fishmonger to see what you can get your hands on.
Often, buying a whole fish or at least fillets of a few pounds at a time can save you, too.