The 100 Year Old Struggle to Call Black Cod “Sablefish”

Note: Initially published in Pacific Fishing.  

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” pondered Juliet as she swooned for Romeo. Fishermen, brokers, and the Bureau of Fisheries considered a less romantic, yet similar, question in 1916, “Would a black cod by any other name sell better?” And thus began the now 100 year old odyssey to call the black cod a sablefish.

Black cod- I mean sablefish- were first noted by white folks intent on naming and classifying the animal kingdom back in 1811. According to Dr. H.F. Moore in a 1917 publication, “the only name which it bore was the barbarous one used by the Indians,” a name which he regrettably does not mention. For the next century, black cod became the species’ moniker, even though fishermen knew that sablefish were clearly unrelated to the more commonly known cod.  

Millions of pounds of sablefish were caught as bycatch by fishermen who were long lining for halibut. The fish were tossed back into the sea since they took up space in the dories which would otherwise be filled by much more valuable halibut. It wasn’t until 1912 that landings were reported in federal registers, even though savvy cooks knew it to be a superior fish. Black cod had an image problem, which generally was attributed to its name.

According to a December 1916 article published in Pacific Fisherman, “The general feeling [is] that the present name is a misnomer and a decided handicap in its marketing.” The article noted that,  “a consumer who want a cod are always disappointed upon purchasing it, while the many consumers who want a rich fish, such as is the black cod, refuse to take it because of the fear that it would be what its common name implies- a dry-meated fish.”

But black cod are scrumptious. William Calvert of San Juan Fishing & Packing stated that, “It is recognized as one of the best fishes we have on the Pacific coast, and as I have repeatedly said in the past, the greatest drawback to the development of a market for it has been its name. As far as we know there are large quantities available, and what we need now is a fish that can be marketed at a low price as compared with halibut and salmon.”

It was delicious, affordable, and abundant. All black cod needed was a champion. So, John N. Cobb, then editor of Pacific Fisherman, worked to convince the Bureau of Fisheries to launch a marketing campaign in 1916. The first step was renaming black cod as sablefish.  (I presume this name was selected because sable was a luxury fur and the most desirable pelts were black.)

Early advertisement for the newly-minted "sablefish." Courtesy NOAA. 

Early advertisement for the newly-minted "sablefish." Courtesy NOAA. 

Next, the Bureau of Fisheries created display cards for use in sales and published a bulletin, “The Sablefish: Alias Black Cod.” Within, the author lauded the attributes of sablefish and included 33 recipes. “Barbecued” sablefish was quite popular, which was akin to kippering. A home economics professor from the University of Washington is quoted as saying, “It is suitable for the humblest home on account of its price and for the millionaire’s table from its fineness of texture and delicious flavor.”

The next summer, the Secretary of Commerce presented President Woodrow Wilson and his D.C. cabinet with sablefish, shipped on ice from Puget Sound. The fish “were much appreciated and highly regarded.”

These branding efforts were rewarded. Several small boats geared up to go fishing specifically for sablefish. Larger halibut schooners also started bringing back what until just recently had been an incidentally-caught species. From 1916 to 1917, the landings of sablefish increased from 304,000 pounds to 1,020,000 pounds.

Sablefish were one of the cheapest fish on the market. A Seattle fish broker noted that, “it is a fish that will reach the poorer people, until the demand grows, as it no doubt will, to such an extent as to advance the price.” Between 1916 and 1917, the price increased only a smidgen, from 3.6 cents a pound to 3.7 cents a pound. 

Now, one hundred years later, we still aren’t sure what to call the creature, but at well over $6 a pound, most of us are happy to just get a few collars thrown our way from fishermen friends. 

ASMI, out-retro-ing the retro. Image courtesy Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. 

ASMI, out-retro-ing the retro. Image courtesy Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.