Fishery History

Sablefish has 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. 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. 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.

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

IVQ management was also the focal point for significant improvements in co-management in the sablefish fishery. The CSA and DFO both share the same primary objective – the proper care and management of the sablefish resource. Both groups are committed to this shared objective and making sure there are sufficient resources available to carry out the necessary scientific research and stock assessment work and for the monitoring, enforcement, administration and management of the fishery.

For more information about co-management of the sablefish fishery please visit the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.