History of BC Sablefish and Canadian Sablefish Association

Sablefish is a much sought after gourmet fish found off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska in deep waters, and other parts of the North Pacific. 

Sablefish have a high content of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and are long-lived, with ages up to 94 years. 

Timeline of Events 

1970s - Start of Sablefish Fishery

Sablefish have been harvested in the deep waters off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada for more than 40 years. The directed fishery began in the late 1970’s when Canadian fishermen pursued overseas markets in Japan and experimented with trap fishing gear. 


As consumer demand increased and fishing methods improved, a viable fishery emerged.

1981 - Introduction of Sablefish Fishing Licences

In 1981 Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) placed controls on the fishery, limiting it to the 48 existing licences and implementing an annual quota or total allowable catch (TAC) for the season. Under this management approach there was a compelling incentive for each fisherman to continually strive for increased catching power through bigger and better boats and gear in order to catch as much fish as possible before the fishery closed. 

1980s - The Derby Style Fishery

The intensity of the competition grew and the fleet became more and more efficient. By the late 1980’s the small fleet could harvest the entire TAC in a matter of a few weeks.


This gave rise to problems controlling the catches of such a high capacity fleet and concern over the manageability of the fishery. And with vessels fishing around the clock in all kinds of weather serious safety concerns arose for vessels and crews pushing the limits of their fishing operations.

1987 - Formation of the Canadian Sablefish Association (CSA)

In 1987 sablefish fishermen formed the Canadian Sablefish Association (CSA), to collaborate with DFO to protect the long term sustainability of the fishery.

1990 - Move to Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ) System and Camera Monitoring 

In 1990 the sablefish fishery switched from a fleet-wide quota system to an Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ) system where each fisherman was allocated a share of the TAC to catch any time throughout the season.


Under the IVQ system, conservation became a tangible concern to each fisherman because the value of their investment was measured in the health of the resource, not in their immediate catch. If a fisherman exceeded his vessel’s annual allocation, he would receive less in the following year. 


The incentive, under IVQ management, turned to maximizing net income from a specific quantity of fish (the annual share allocated to each vessel). With the “race for fish” eliminated, fishermen gained more control over factors that affect the value of the fish, such as seasonal supply and quality.

1990s - Co-Management of Fishery with DFO and CSA

In the new IVQ system, the sablefish fisherman now directly see the long-term benefit of a sustainable fishery and actively engage the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in a co-management relationship. 


Funds from the sablefishery annually are set aside for increase scientific research, biological modelling, survey fishing, and better management practices put into place. 


Every year, catch rates and fishing survey data is analyzed, biological models are updated, and total available catch (TAC) rates are set for the next fishing year and future years. This helps ensure sustainability of the sablefish population and resource. 

2006 - Integrated Fisheries Management 

The integrated groundfishery management was a pilot project implemented around 2006. It was a requirement to the groundfish fleet to be accountable and responsible for all bycatch. There was a struggle to how this would happen between halibut, sablefish, 


Commercial Industry Caucus was formed, by DFO but industry driven, for how we account for non-directed catch. 


It became formalized in the subsequent years, and is now how we operated, with electronic monitoring at sea. 

2007 - BC First Nations Direct Involvement in Sablefish Fishery

The Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative (PICFI) was launched in 2007. It was designed to increase First Nations' access to the commercial fisheries in British Columbia (BC) by:

  • developing common and transparent rules that apply to all participants

  • improving the management of the commercial fisheries through greater collaboration among stakeholders

Through the PICFI program, the federal government purchased fishing assets, licences, vessels, and equipment and provided this to First Nations bands up and down the coast to bring First Nations involvement into the Sablefish fishery and other BC coast fisheries. 


Currently over 25% of the BC Sablefish Fishery is now First Nations operated and they are a crucial partner and stakeholder in this fishery. 

Today and Beyond - Sustainability, Good Science, and Co-Management with DFO

The British Columbia sable fishery has reached world class status in its management practices, science, and sustainability. 


It is a resource benefiting Canada through taxes and economic exports around the world. 


The fishery supports BC families up and down the coast, with a large and growing involvement from the First Nations community. 


The future looks bright for this fishery, resource, science, economics, and collaborative approach, which bodes well for the future.