When Juneau fisherman Paula Terrel
looks ahead, she sees the potential for the Pacific Ocean's
successful black cod commercial fisheries to go the way of
the salmon: from community-based fishing to industrial farming.
"It's going to be devastating,'' said Terrel, who fishes for
black cod in Southeast's offshore waters. To her chagrin,
both the U.S. and Canadian governments are working to spur
black cod and other offshore fish farming. Terrel's fears
about how fish farming could change her livelihood - and that
of nearly 1,000 other U.S. black cod fishermen - could be
Over the border in British Columbia, Gidon Minkoff of Sablefin
Hatcheries Ltd. is preparing his first harvest of 30,000 young
black cod, called sablefish outside of Alaska, for their journey
to offshore net pens in the ocean this year. The only thing
standing in Minkoff's way is a court petition by the Canadian
Sablefish Association, a commercial fisherman's group, to
temporarily halt the transfer of juvenile black cod to British
Columbia fish farms until more scientific studies are completed.
A Canadian federal judge will hear the petition Monday morning.
More than 40 licenses already have been approved in British
Columbia for fish farmers to expand beyond salmon and shellfish,
and most of them are for black cod.
The Canadian Sablefish Association accuses the provincial and federal governments of illegally circumventing environmental assessments required under Canadian law.
Minkoff says he has been scrutinized by regulators every
step of the way. Regulators did not return the Empire's phone
calls. Minkoff also said fishermen can't provide for future
needs. "They are dinosaurs and the world changes,'' Minkoff
Canadian fishermen, such as Eric Wickham, worry they will
lose their $30 million annual commercial black cod harvest
due to environmental pollution and an inability to compete
with larger farm outputs. Wickham, executive director of the
Canadian Sablefish Association, also worries that like farmed
salmon, farmed cod could introduce diseases and parasites
to their wild counterparts, which live in British Columbia's
inlets and fjords in their juvenile stage.
Limited production of farmed black cod began about five years ago in Canada. Though it is a few steps behind, the U.S. National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration is conducting research on offshore black cod aquaculture. No commercial hatcheries or farms have been developed yet, but under the Bush administration, NOAA developed a policy favoring the introduction of offshore aquaculture in federally owned waters, defined as 3 to 200 miles from the shoreline.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said last week she is
troubled about farm-raised black cod. "There are a number
of environmental questions that haven't been fully answered
as to how they could affect the natural resource,'' she said
in a written response to an Empire query.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also is scrutinizing
the NOAA policy supporting offshore aquaculture, which has
not yet resulted in legislation. "The state is working on
its comments to NOAA on the policy at this time,'' said Nancy
Long, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Meanwhile, Terrel worries that Alaskans remain blind to
the possible danger to their commercial fishery, which is
even more lucrative than the Canadians'. The U.S. harvest
in Alaska and Washington is more than four times the landed
value of British Columbia's harvest, according to a recent
report by the Canadian Sablefish Association. "When I talked
to Alaska legislators, there was not one who supported (farm-raised
black cod), but most of them didn't realize it was happening,''
The market for all black cod harvesting is Japan and Hong
Kong, where that fishery crashed some years ago. Black cod
spawn in the deep ocean and migrate to shore when they are
juveniles. Until 1998, Canadians were unable to hatch them
successfully. The researchers' major obstacle has been the
delicacy of black cod eggs, causing low survival and production
rates. But Minkoff said he and others have begun to surmount
those difficulties. Minkoff says he raises his black cod larvae
- no bigger than an eyelash - in complete darkness. "We give
them the feeling that they are somewhere deep down in the
abysses of the ocean,'' he said.
The Sablefin Hatcheries operation on Saltspring Island grows plankton to feed the black cod until they reach 10 grams in weight in four months. Minkoff's first crop has been ready to sell for several weeks now, he said.
Once Canadian farm harvests increase to competitive levels
with Alaska fishermen, "it means less jobs, per pound of fish,''
said Bob Alverson, of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners
Association, which lobbies against farmed black cod and offshore
aquaculture. Alverson guesses it would take three to five
years before Canadian black cod farming could have a major
impact on the U.S. industry, because of the current low production
On the other hand, Minkoff feels that his business could
take off if a domestic market opens up for black cod. "There
is a lot of interest in getting (black cod) into the North
American market ... I think people would really enjoy it,''