The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is collaborating with federal scientists and private investors on a black cod broodstock program in Puget Sound.

“They’re a native fish to Puget Sound, not something like an Atlantic salmon,” said Kurt Grinnell, general manager of the tribe’s aquaculture program. “We don’t need to worry about them being an invasive non-native fish in our waters.”

However, due to changing habitat conditions and development over time, black cod population numbers are low.

“This program is a long-time coming and we want to be a part of it,” Grinnell said. “It’s coming to fruition now.”

There are no plans for the tribe to start a net pen program of its own near Sequim, but it’s a possibility down the road with other tribes, Grinnell said.

For now, the tribe is involved with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and private investors to sell fry and milt to other hatcheries or companies around the country.

Like geoduck, black cod is highly desirable in Asian countries such as Japan, China and South Korea. The white fish can be prepared in variety of ways, including grilling, smoking, frying and serving as sushi.

The NOAA Manchester facility has been studying the life history and genetics of black cod, also known as sablefish, since 2010. It’s the only hatchery in the United States with a black cod aquaculture program.

“NOAA is interested in putting its research into practice, hence the partnership with others interested in doing the same,” said Rick Goetz, a NOAA supervisory research physiologist at Manchester.

Black cod live in the ocean between 1,000 feet and 3,000 feet in a constant temperature of 41 F. The fish have an elevated lipid (fat) in their muscle to maintain buoyancy at that depth.

Their migration area ranges from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea and they can live up to 60 years.

Females can reproduce up to six times within a 24-48 hour period, producing up to 250,000 eggs total, but it takes five to six years for them to become sexually mature. It’s impossible to tell the sex of the fish by observation, so the technicians use ultrasound to determine gender.

Black cod don’t like bright light so technicians work with them in the dark, with red headlamps in rooms chilled to 41 F.

In the broodstock program, NOAA collects 100 black cod every fall off Westport, then brings them back to the Manchester hatchery for spawning. Between January and March, technicians harvest eggs and sperm from the fish and externally fertilize eggs in glass beakers, similar to how salmon hatcheries conduct their spawning programs every fall.