By Staff Writer
W hen it comes to aquaculture in BC, most people think salmon. But another fish, raised away from the spotlight, is making waves across the world for its taste, texture and versatility. “It’s a beautiful, buttery fish…perfect for sashimi,” said Chef Han of Kosoo Restaurant, famed for his innovative Seoul food in Vancouver. “It doesn’t look like much but the fat content and the creamy white flesh has a very beautiful mouthfeel”, said Chef Han, as he prepared a fresh Gindara sablefish, harvested the day before, several hundred miles away from the pristine waters of Kyuquot Sound on Vancouver’s Island’s rugged west coast.
Sablefish also known as Black Cod or Butterfish aka Gindara in Japanese, is an ancient species native to the deep seas of the northeast Pacific Ocean, that has been commercially fished for over 40 years in British Columbia and Alaska.
Sablefish can be highly migratory. Tagged fish show movement from the inside waters of Hecate Strait and mainland inlets to the offshore waters of British Columbia as far north as the Aleutian Islands and south to American waters off Oregon. The oldest fish recovered from British Columbian waters was aged at 92 years states the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
Like most of our oceans bounty, wild stocks face the threats of overfishing, acidification and warming seas. While the sablefish stocks are healthy in Alaska and British Columbia, they have been declining for decades on the U.S. West Coast. “We are all about sustainably farmed fish helping support wild stocks and a robust commercial and indigenous fishery,” said Terry Brooks, president of Gindara, who has been perfecting the culture of sablefish in B.C. for the past two decades.
Gindara today is the only farm in the world producing sablefish at a commercial level. “We started our operations about 15 years ago with all the research, development and testing that goes into producing a new species for aquaculture…We used our knowledge of salmon farming as a base,” said Brooks, 54, a father of two sons, both of whom work in B.C.’s aquaculture industry. “It was a new frontier for aquaculture in BC. “About four years ago, we reached peak quality and consistency and achieved a premium product. We decided to brand this product as Gindara Sablefish in order to create a recognizable premium brand for chefs all over the world,” said Brooks at his home in Campbell River.
Gindara Sablefish are grown from eggs derived from locally caught brood-stock at a hatchery located on Salt Spring Island. Here, amidst an array of dimly-lit tanks, supervised by a team of highly trained biologists and technicians, the newborns spend about four months growing to a juvenile size before being moved by truck and boat to the seas in Kyuquot Sound. “In our land based hatchery we mimic nature keeping the fish in total darkness,” said Taylor Daniel, Gindara’s hatchery manager who oversees a team of 12. “We bring in a small number of wild parents each year, to ensure genetic similarity to wild fish and keep diversity in the genes. “When the sablefish embryo leaves the egg it becomes a sablefish larvae and they need to fed,” said Daniel.
At the hatchery, Gindara’s proprietary research and technology has also been developed to grow plankton which sablefish larvae will eat at different stages of growth. “It is all about care, dedication, and purity before we send our babies to grow out in the natural ocean environment in Kyuquot Sound,” said Daniel. Gindara Sablefish spend another 20 months growing in Kyuquot Sound for a total production time of two years to reach harvest size of 6.5lbs on average.
In this remote location, staff live on the farm in two-week rotations, many of whom are members of Gindara’s partners in production, the Kyuquot-Checleseht First Nations. Clare Li, sustainability director for Gindara Sablefish, said the production target at the hatchery for 2020 was 350,000 fish, but it actually produced closer to 450,000 fish. “We aim to grow by 15% every year…Much of our fish is shipped to Japan where it is enjoyed as sashimi….the rest goes to the U.S., Europe and Canada,” she said. “The chefs that primarily use Gindara Sablefish are white tablecloth restaurants and sushi chefs. Sushi chefs in particular love Gindara Sablefish, because it is the only fresh sablefish that can be consumed raw. “Our fish are harvested every week of the year and are of consistent quality and we can trace every fish back from egg to plate,” said Li.
For their dedication to the science and sustainability of growing sablefish, Gindara was recently granted the ‘Green, Best Choice’ rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, making it the first marine finfish farm in Canada to get the gold standard.
Seafood Watch recommendations are one of the most respected seafood assessment systems, and provide consumers, chefs, and businesses with unbiased science-based guidance about the environmental sustainability of a wide range of farmed and wild seafood products. “The process for a Seafood Watch rating is thorough and includes a detailed analysis of all aspects of farming, a methodical peer review process, and data verification using independent sources,” said Li.
For Terry Brooks, this was a highlight in his aquaculture career that began when he was 19. “There is no doubt that the fish farming industry will be an important part of the B.C. economy as it recovers from the impacts of Covid-19 and well into the future.” “We are ready to be part of this growth with sablefish aquaculture,” he said. Brooks’ pioneering work has set the stage for others to see the potential of sablefish aquaculture in the Pacific Northwest.
Last year, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington State announced a joint venture with Canadian-based Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to rear sablefish at its Puget Sound net pens. The Aboriginal Aquaculture Association (AAA) based in Campbell River states that after 30 years of research, sablefish is a priority candidate for commercial cultivation in B.C. “Some estimates suggest that an operation with 150,000 Sablefish/year in annual production would employ five people directly, and support another five fulltime equivalent (FTE) jobs in harvesting, processing, transportation, net lofts etc., generating revenue of some $7.0 million at today’s prices, the group states on its website. “A potential opportunity also exists where First Nations could work with B.C. salmon farming companies to set up (sablefish) production at existing, idle farms, using surplus equipment,” said the AAA.