Top-Tier Tuna

by Leslie Cole, The Oregonian

Tuesday September 23, 2008, 12:05 AM

The eat-local craze goes out to sea as consumers find Pacific albacore is meaty, delicious and packed with health benefits.

Oregon’s best-kept food secret comes in a can and never met a lunchbox it didn’t like.
It’s premium albacore tuna, caught by hook and line off the West Coast, filleted and processed by hand. Open the can, and it’s swimming in its own juices, ready for your fork, a sandwich or a fancy nicoise salad.

Instead of gritty shreds of dry white meat you get a solid piece of tuna loin, ranging from pale peach to beige. The flavor is clean, sometimes even sweet, and the juices delicious — please don’t pour them down the drain.

Great canned tuna right in our backyard? No need to explain to the folks who buy albacore off the docks each summer or catch it themselves, fire up their pressure canners at home and pack the meaty hunks of fish into jars.

Here’s what the rest of us should know: Our local Pacific albacore, processed in small canneries on the coast, is succulent, mild and delicious. It’s low in methylmercury and packed with healthy fish oils. And for the same reason you might prefer to buy broccoli at a farmers market, spending your tuna dollars on the local product helps Northwest fishing families and keeps dollars close to home.

“The vast majority (of locally caught albacore) goes to export,” says Rick Goche, a longtime fisherman out of Coquille and chairman of the Oregon Albacore Commission. “We’d like to change that around. We’d like our neighbors to eat what we catch.”
The dozen or so micro-canneries producing this premium product — for individual fishing vessels, small seafood markets or their own sales — turn out but a sliver of what the big three commercial brands sell in supermarkets worldwide, about 2,000 metric tons a year, says Wayne Heikkila of the Western Fishboat Owners Association. Compare that with the 2.3 million tons per year of lightmeat tuna (skipjack) that comes from the big three commercial producers, whose fishing operations and canneries are mostly based in Asia and the South Pacific.

Like any artisan product, premium tuna will cost you. Wild Pacific albacore sells for $4 to $6 a can. Even for a generous 6 to 7.5 ounces of superior fish, that price is tough to swallow if you’re used to paying 75 cents for a can of Starkist at the grocery store.
But while commercially canned tuna sales are flagging, premium tuna from the Northwest is finding a niche. Business is booming for Sacred Sea Tuna, the label Goche started five years ago when salmon fishing became less dependable. “We’ve doubled our production over the last couple of years,” he says.

Sales are strong, he says, because local albacore isn’t like the other fish in the sea.
One fish at a time

For starters, it’s caught by hook and line. Pole and troll fishermen fishing off the Northwest coast haul in tuna one at a time, using barbless hooks, instead of scooping them up by the thousands using purse-seine nets or long lines with multiple hooks, common practice for tuna boats in the South Pacific. Troll boats can’t haul in as many fish, but the fish they do land are in better shape and fresher, with less bruising. Besides that, Goche says, “it’s the cleanest, most sustainable fishery in the world,” with little bycatch, overfishing or damage to ocean habitat. The albacore, which average about 15 pounds, are brought in quickly, then bled and flash frozen, either with ice-cold brine or cold air, within minutes. At micro-canneries, mostly in Oregon and Washington, they get the same conscientious care.

Premium Northwest tuna are hauled into boats one at a time, so they suffer less bruising, and are then flash-frozen. Processors such as Dungeness Development Associates in South Bend, Wash., thaw the fish and then clean and fillet them by hand. The time-consuming work is why the tuna commands $4 to $6 a can.

Dungeness Development Associates, a cannery at the head of Willapa Bay in South Bend, Wash., custom packs tuna for eight to 10 clients every year, as little as 1,000 cans for a small boat owner and up to 100,000 cans for its largest client, Oregon’s Choice Gourmet Albacore. “It seems to grow each year,” says Mel Corbett, plant manager. Albacore accounts for about one-third of the cannery’s time, and fills the gaps between Dungeness crab and pink shrimp season. Here, the fish are defrosted, then cleaned and filleted by hand. Hunks of loin meat are hand-packed into cans or jars, then sealed and processed in a pressure canner.

Dungeness Development and a few other canneries make a point of putting a piece of belly loin in every can, along with a fist-sized hunk of back loin. Belly loin, which has a higher fat content, is juicier and more flavorful.

More oil, less cooking

And the younger West Coast albacore has more natural oils than the larger, more mature white-fleshed tuna processed in the big canneries, so you end up with more fish oil, and more flavor, in the can.

But the biggest difference between conventional canned tuna and the locally canned product is how it’s cooked. The little guys’ “natural” or “raw pack” means it’s cooked just once, in the can. Commercial canneries thaw and cook the fish before canning, drain off the oils, then pack it in cans with water or vegetable oil. Then they cook it a second time during processing. Double-cooking hides bruising and other flaws in lower-quality albacore, says Herb Goblirsch, a Newport fisherman who started Oregon’s Choice Gourmet Albacore ( almost two decades ago. It turns the albacore a uniform white color, and allows canneries to get more meat off the fish. But there’s no comparing the taste.

“It’s such a radical difference between precooked and natural pack,” says Goblirsch, whose tuna recently earned the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification for sustainability. “The custom canned has far more healthy fish oils, more tuna in the can, and it tastes better.”

Albacore buyers are looking for more than good taste. The groundswell of interest in his product, Goblirsch says, “all has to do with the safety of seafood.” About 8,000 customers buy his Oregon’s Choice Gourmet Albacore through his Web site, most of them on the East Coast, he says, along with 100 retailers including New Seasons and Dean & DeLuca. Prospective customers are quick to ask him about mercury, he says.
Albacore or solid “white” tuna from conventional canneries tested highest for mercury among canned tunas, at 0.36 parts per million, in U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests. A 2004 joint advisory by the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended that pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children eat no more than 6 ounces per week.

West Coast albacore, which are younger fish, tested far lower, 0.14 parts per million, according to a study by Oregon State University’s Sea Food Laboratory, about the same as canned light (skipjack) tuna.

The reason: Albacore are highly migratory, and only the younger fish, with lower mercury levels, swim our colder Northwest waters. “In the South Pacific,” Goblirsch says, “they catch fish 5 years and older. Here they’re 3 or 4 years old, weighing 12 to 20 pounds.”

For tuna connoisseurs, taste is just as critical. The holy grail of canned tuna is arguably ventresca, silky pieces of belly loin packed in oil, produced in Spain. Other gourmands pine for Spanish or Italian imported tuna canned in high-quality olive oil. Local albacore fisherman say there’s a good reason for that: “My fish has gone to Spain,” Goche says, “been canned under a Spanish label, and sold back to the U.S.”

In fact, West Coast canned albacore, says Joe Guth, owner of the specialty food wholesaler Provvista, could give the imports a run for their money if the canneries here started packing the fish in oil as well. Once you do, open the can and dig in, or check out our recipes.

Leslie Cole: 503-294-4069; Finding local tuna Beth Nakamura Looking to hook some canned Pacific albacore? To make sure you’re getting the local product, look for the words “raw pack” or “packed in its own juices” on the label. The only ingredients listed should be tuna and salt, and each can should have at least 5 grams of fat in it (those are natural fish oils, not additives). The following Portland-area grocers carry at least one West Coast brand: QFC (Day Island Fish Co.), Wizer’s (Oregon’s Choice, Nelson Seatreats), Newman’s Fish Co. (Newman’s Premium Oregon Albacore), Market of Choice (Sweet Creek Foods, Oregon’s Choice, Skipanon Brand), Strohecker’s (Oregon’s Choice, Kimmel’s, Sacred Sea, Nelson Seatreats, Elwha Fish Co.), Whole Foods Markets (Dave’s Gourmet Albacore, Kimmel’s, American Tuna) and New Seasons Markets (Local Ocean, Sweet Creek Foods, Oregon’s Choice, Nelson Seatreats). You’ll also find locally caught canned albacore sold under private label at coastal seafood markets, such as Bay Ocean Seafood in Garibaldi, Bell Buoy of Seaside, Josephson’s Smokehouse in Astoria, Local Ocean in Newport and Chuck’s Seafoods in Charleston. Expect to pay $4 to $6 for 6 to 7.5 ounces, comparable to the price of fresh troll-caught local albacore, currently selling for $9 to $11 per pound. — Leslie Cole

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