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How well do you know your tuna?

America's most popular fish may surprise you

    A worker at Borstein Seafoods offloads a blast-frozen albacore tuna.

    I enjoy a tuna melt as much as the next person.

    But I hadn’t tasted an albacore loin before working for Sitka Seafood Market. The experience when I finally did (after dutifully following Culinary Director Grace Parisi’s recipe for her Pepper-Crusted Tuna Niçoise), opened my eyes to a completely different fish than the one I'd come to associate with a tin can.

    Today's deep dive helped me learn why that bite of salad tasted so much better than any deli melt I'd had before.

    To start, I learned that only the tuna that are handled with the most rigorous quality standards are sold as loins. The rest go into cans to be sold on the shelf. But it’s more than that. Honestly, I altogether underestimated tuna. Not only as a food, but as a wild animal.

    Grace Parisi's recipe for Pepper-Crusted Tuna Niçoise was a revelation and surprisingly easy to make.

    Here are a few facts I learned while writing this piece about North Pacific albacore that left me gobsmacked:

    They’re (semi) warm-blooded. Amazing.

    Their tails thrum against the deck of a boat faster than I can tap my fingers, which sounds to me like a woodpecker drumming.

    They travel in schools that can span up to 19 miles wide. After a quick Google search, I discovered that 19 miles is wider than the widest point of the Mississippi River.

    Pop quiz: How wide is the Mississippi at its widest point?

    The Quick Google Answer (QGA): 11 Miles! The Mississippi flows through Lake Winnibigoshish, located in the Leech Lake Reservation.

    That means if you were to traverse a large school of tuna (skipping atop their long fins perhaps?), you would run further than the distance of Minnesota's fourth-largest lake.

    Albacore tuna are also called longfin tuna due to their unusually long pectoral fins.

    However, you would have to be running exceptionally fast because albacore can swim up to 50 miles an hour. After all, they have a lot of distance to cover. Their annual migration includes leaving the coast of Japan around April or May and swimming the entire width of the Pacific Ocean. They arrive off the coast of the Pacific Northwest typically around June or July where they stay and feed until October at which point they return to Japan for the winter.

    In short, albacore is a powerful, hot-blooded, free-ranging wild animal that travels in flickering packs across tremendous distances. However, if you were to go to your local grocery this evening and ask for albacore, you would more likely see “White Tuna” or “Chunk Light” written on the tin.

    America's Fish

    Albacore tuna travel in schools that can be up to 19 miles wide.

    According to the National Fisheries Institute, tuna is the second most popular seafood product consumed in the United States, second only to shrimp. And speaking of tins, when it comes to canned tuna, Americans eat about 1 billion pounds every year — making up a third of the entire domestic seafood market.

    Quality handling makes the difference between albacore that is sold as loins and those that is sold as canned tuna.

    Although there are many species of tuna, you’re most likely to find one of four tuna species on your plate: bigeye, yellowfin, albacore, or skipjack tuna. These four make up the bulk of the commercial tuna market, but to assume that this means there are only four consumer options would be to ignore the variety (and intricacies!) of the big (sometimes bad) world of tuna.

    Considering its significant role in American households, and consequently, in the domestic food market, it’s no wonder that tuna is submerged in controversy. A fraught world of fish politics that spans five oceans as well as an array of environmental and human impacts swirl around this industry — all of which are quite invisible to the consumer. Tuna is considered a “highly migratory species” and exist in every major ocean, often moving between them, making management of this fish tricky to say the least. In the case of Pacific albacore, the fishery is managed federally (in partnership with Canada, in fact) by the National Marine Fisheries Service under the banner of the Highly Migratory Species sub-panel.

    Distribution of global albacore tuna fisheries (from World Review of Highly Migratory Species and Straddling Stocks by S. Garcia, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

    Conflict tuna

    Tuna is at the crux of some of the most serious and pressing issues in the fishing industry today. Some are well-known to the public (think dolphins and bluefin) while others are more murky (debt bondage and piracy). I highly encourage you to go listen directly to the people who are working on solutions. You can do so by listening to “Tuna Negotiations” from the podcast series Fish Talk produced by Sitka Seafood Market and hosted by Paul Greenberg and Nic Mink.

    In the face of these types of large-scale problems, I like to focus on what I can control. One thing I can do is help American seafood consumers avoid what I’ll call “conflict tuna” and instead support responsible and sustainable tuna.

    Sitka Seafood Market only sources sustainable tun caught and processed in the U.S.

    First, with fisheries, it’s important to be specific. Sitka Seafood Market Science and Policy Director Michael Kohan emphasizes this stating, “It’s important to talk about what species and stock, from which fishery, not just “tuna” in general.” For example, the country where the seafood is caught and processed is considered a primary risk assessment factor in calculating the social risk of specific seafood. That’s why Sitka Seafood Market only sources seafood that is caught and processed in the U.S. Additionally, Kohan looks at a number of factors when sourcing Sitka Seafood Market’ seafood — namely sustainability and quality. There are tools out there as well as seafood experts like Kohan that you can use as a resource to help you feel confident about where you are buying your seafood.

    Fishing for albacore

    With this in mind, I called up Tom Fulkerson, a fisherman from Eureka, California, to get a better idea of what it’s really like to fish for North Pacific albacore off the coast of the United States. We connect through a mutual friend. It’s mid-October and albacore season is just wrapping up. He’s driving home when I catch him on his cell phone.

    Tom has been fishing for albacore for 20 years now. He started at age 40, having already fished for two decades. Salmon and crab were how he made his money for 20 years until salmon fishing started disappearing in the management zone where he fished in California. Fishing for albacore was a new way to make up that money.

    The shift prompted Tom to buy a bigger boat — a 58-foot wooden troller built in Astoria, Oregon, in 1954. Shifting into a new fishery can be extremely costly. The overhead of gear and boat maintenance combined with the crapshoot that is fishing weighs on many captains. (One fisherman once told me that he would often lie awake at night thinking about the $100,000 of crab pot gear that was sitting on the bottom of the ocean.) Tom says that the easiest part of being a small-boat owner and operator is actually catching the fish — it’s everything else that makes it hard. “I was telling somebody just today that after working on the boat for a month getting it ready and being stressed out about money, it seems like all the stress goes away once you head out onto the ocean and start a trip. It’s more like going on vacation than working at that point.”

    The F/V Triggerfish heads out on vacation.

    One of the reasons Tom especially enjoys albacore fishing is because he can blast-freeze the fish at sea, allowing him to stay out and keep catching fish longer. That means that instead of a five-day salmon trip, he can go out for fifteen to twenty days. “We can stay out and just concentrate on fishing and get away from the stress.”

    Freezing the albacore at sea also cuts down on the rush to get the fish back to the processor and into the freezer. This is especially handy since fishing on the open ocean means that offloading fish to a tenderboat isn’t possible. “I can't even imagine banging up against a boat trying to unload. We don’t get nice, cushy weather along the coast. A lot of the time I’d sign a contract for 15 to 20 knots, but we wind up getting a lot of 25 to 30 knots. It can last for weeks and weeks.”

    He can’t see my raised eyebrows over the phone. “I don't know if that sounds like a vacation to me.”

    Tom laughs, “Well, down here when the wind blows it just depends on how hungry you are. Everybody stays and fishes even though we’re getting beat up . . . even a handful is better than nothing.”

    Catching tuna sustainably

    When I ask him what it's like to catch an albacore Tom tells me there are a few methods. One of them is simply pole fishing for tuna — catching each individual albacore with a hand-held pole like you would off the dock for sport only more extreme. He says fishermen fling the fish up on deck one after the next — each silver and white fish moving so quickly through the water that when they fly out of the water and land on deck, the sound of their tails fluttering against the boards sounds like rattles that build and build until the whole boat is vibrating with fish.

    I admit that I thought this would be an exaggeration until I went on YouTube and proceeded to watch over an hour of albacore pole-fishing videos (parents be warned: this video contains salty language). Truly, they’re amazing to watch and I can confirm that it’s no fish story: pole-and-line fishermen flick their hooks in and out of the surface of the water, plucking fish after fish from the ocean and onto their back deck. They make it look easy. Although, when I eventually called Tom back he said that repeatedly bending forward and snapping back is actually pretty hard on the fisherman’s back. That’s why he prefers to troll jig — a similar concept, but with more hooks in the water which are pulled behind the boat in a fashion similar to salmon trolling.

    Both pole-and-line and jig trolling are preferred by sustainable sourcing experts such as Carrie Brownstein who advises Whole Foods on their seafood quality standards. Both of these gear types require the fisherman to catch tuna one fish at a time, which minimizes bycatch. And since each fish is individually handled, it ultimately yields a very high-quality product.

    Image courtesy of the Oregon Department of Agriculture

    Can vs loin?

    For example, right after a fish is pulled from the water it needs to be bled. An albacore’s body temperature is around 80 degrees, depending on the water temperature (a fact that I find astonishing and likely would have disputed on the phone with Tom if I hadn’t already been so humbled by the pole-and-line video). Fishermen submerge albacore into cold water on deck to bleed the fish and lower their body temperature before blast freezing them.

    The quality of the final product is also determined by the sourcing and handling standards of the processor, so I reached out to Andrew Bornstein, the owner of Bornstein Seafoods where we source our albacore, to understand what his company is doing to ensure that their albacore maintains top flavor and texture.

    When I ask him about what’s particular about their albacore he tells me that their fish are richly flavorful, “Fat equals flavor when it comes to fish!” says Andrew. It turns out that the North Pacific albacore has the highest fat content of any albacore in the world, largely due to their diet which is heavy in other nutrient-rich, fat-dense fish like sardines, anchovies, and herring.

    Beyond that, Andrew says that they have the best albacore because they only work with the best boats — boats that bleed their fish well and freeze their fish until they’re ultra-cold.

    Jake Knutzen, Borstein Seafoods’ program sales manager, explains that they test the core temperature of the fish as soon as the boat arrives at the dock and prior to purchase. The target temperature range is zero to negative ten degrees. “If we see fish that’s higher, like ten to fifteen degrees at core temp, we stay away from those vessels,” says Knutzen.

    Members of the Bornstein offload crew weigh a tote of hook-and-line caught albacore tuna.

    These seem like pretty stringent standards. I ask why these ultra-cold temps can make or break a buying decision. He explains that it has to do with that same high fat content that gives the North Pacific albacore such great flavor. It also means that fishermen and processors have to get the fish “as cold as you can as quickly as you can” in order to stop something called “oil migration.”

    Oil migration? I give it a Google. After poking around and reading a few articles, I find out that oil migration is actually something I’ve seen in food products, and you likely have encountered it as well. Have you ever noticed a white, almost dusky-looking coating on an almond-filled chocolate bar? Apparently, this is called a “fat bloom” and it usually happens due to mishandling which allows the chocolate to get too warm.

    Albacore are blast frozen on board and loin portions remain frozen until they're ready to cook at home.

    That’s why Bornstein’s team is so vigilant about making sure that fish are kept super cold. “We do quality checks, testing the fish’s core temps, checking the bleeding as well as bloom to make sure the fish was bled correctly before it was frozen,” says Jake. Andrew agrees by telling me that if a boat doesn’t bleed its fish or if it doesn’t have the refrigeration to get its fish super chilled, that fish winds up being canned. In fact, he says that 75% of all the tuna caught on the west coast is canned. “It’s only the best 25% of the catch that is of sushi grade that we will buy and put up as a premium loin.”

    75% of all the tuna caught on the west coast is canned.

    What’s more, Borstein has the technology to cut those frozen-at-sea albacore into loins while they’re still frozen so that when they reach the doorsteps of Sitka Seafood Market’ members they’ve never been thawed.

    Bornstein’s fleet is made up of men and women from coastal towns along the west coast, ranging from as far south as California — like Tom — and all the way up the coast to Bellingham, Washington. Andrew says, “We have guys from Southern California we only see once a year, and then we have guys from Astoria, Oregon, whose kids play on our kids’ sports teams and we see them every day.”

    Andrew describes the culture of the North Pacific albacore fleet as being comprised of family businesses, “Many of the captains you meet today will tell you that they learned the craft from their grandparents and parents, and it has a certain amount of sentimental nostalgia for them.” This seems fitting since Andrew Bornstein himself is the third-generation owner of the Bornstein family business.

    A Bornstein Seafoods worker places a blast frozen albacore tuna in a shipper box.

    Sourcing sustainable tuna

    For Sitka Seafood Market, responsibly-managed fisheries are non-negotiable. When looking at where to source seafood, Sitka Seafood Market looks at the health of the different stocks. For example, there are a variety of different stocks of albacore across the globe both in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and there are conservation issues with some of these stocks and fisheries in the Atlantic and to some extent the Indian Ocean. But, this is not the case for the North Pacific albacore tuna stock and fishery which has some of the highest ratings for responsible fisheries management from a number of reputable bodies and sources.

    What’s more, Sitka Seafood Market looks at assessments from non-governmental third parties that use science-based methods to certify the fishery as sustainable. For example, the U.S. North Pacific albacore stock is considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program and is approved by two other sustainability rating programs including Ocean Wise and the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide. Additionally, Sitka Seafood Market sources their albacore from the same fishery as brands that topped Greenpeace’s list for sustainable and ethical canned tuna.

    All this to say that while I’m no expert on tuna, there are tools and sustainable seafood companies out there that can help non-experts like me enjoy responsibly-sourced albacore on their seared tuna salad at home.