West Coast Albacore A to Z

With albacore season in full swing, it seems like a good time to rerun this post from 2011.

Wind off the ocean whipped through the rigging on his boat, and sea lions barked in the background as albacore tuna fisherman Rick Goché recalled growing up on Tillamook Bay on Oregon’s north coast.

“I’ve been fish crazy since I can remember,” he said. “When I was old enough to make my way down to the creek, I was fishing with a safety pin and a string. I can still remember when I got my first factory-made hook.”

Goché's boat, the Peso II.

Goché grew up to be a fisherman; today, he fishes the Pacific Northwest’s deep, abundant waters, casting off from Coos Bay for two to six weeks at a time. It’s hard work, and definitely not child’s play. “When you’re a hundred, 200, 300 miles offshore, it’s not like you can duck into a port when the weather gets bad,” he says. 

His brother, Larry, fishes with him, and his son, his daughter, and his grandson have taken turns on the boat as well. He has hopes that his daughter Lauren, who will be working on the tuna boat this summer, may eventually take up fishing as a career.

“Even though she won’t be on the boat,” he said, “it’ll be cool to be on the water with her.”

Today a few boats are woman-owned and run.

The average age of a fishboat owner is 62 (Goché is 57—“I’m one of the young guys,” he says), and the industry has had trouble attracting younger people into a career that not only is dangerous but also requires hard physical labor and long periods away from home.

Another issue facing the industry is consumer awareness, a concern voiced by chef Eric Jenkins while he was handing out samples of hot-off-the-grill wild West Coast albacore outside a Portland-area Whole Foods market. “I’ve had a couple of people say they won’t eat fish because of the mercury,” he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Wayne Heikkila, a second-generation albacore fishboat owner and currently executive director of the Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA). “[People] don’t know tuna from albacore, or skipjack from yellowtail.”

Fresh-canned West Coast albacore is only cooked once.

The tuna most of us grew up eating in casseroles and sandwiches was probably skipjack, which is caught on giant factory ships that operate in the deep, tropical oceans of the world and is sold under brand names like StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea. Nearly all of those ships are longline fisheries, which tow a fishing line several miles long with thousands of hooks baited at regular intervals along its length. The problem with this method is that it produces significant bycatch—meaning that it also hooks endangered and threatened sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals, sharks, and other fish besides skipjack.

The tuna caught in these deep waters are several years old and can weigh 40 to 60 pounds. They have absorbed mercury and other toxins, enough to cause the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to advise pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to limit their intake of the fish.

Those warnings have caused big headaches for the West Coast albacore industry.

Line-caught West Coast albacore is MSC certified as sustainable.

That’s because the advisories don’t distinguish between the albacore caught in the deeper oceans and those younger and smaller tuna caught off the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Ranging in age from three to five years old and weighing 12 to 25 pounds, these younger albacore simply have not spent enough time in the ocean environment to contain the levels of mercury found in the larger, older fish.

Heikkila is frustrated that so much of the albacore caught off our own coast is exported to Japan for sushi, and that Northwest foodies would rather buy a can of albacore tuna from Spain—produced, ironically, from West Coast albacore that is exported to that country and shipped back to stores here—than albacore caught and canned on their own coastline.

“We’re trying to get consumers to eat more of the local product,” Heikkila said. Approximately 16,000 to 23,000 tons of albacore are caught per year. “It’s crazy—we send 80% to 90% of it to other countries and then the U.S. consumer has to buy it from overseas. That money could go into local fishermen’s pockets.”

Grilled albacore loin.

What’s more, Northwest consumers are generally unaware that these local fish are caught one at a time using what’s called a pole-and-line or troll-and-jig method. This approach employs 10 to 15 lines of nylon cord measuring six to 100 feet long that are towed behind a boat. Each line has a barbless “jig” or lure at the end that is attached to a double barbless hook. When a fish bites the jig, the fisherman hauls it by hand into the boat, allowing the fishermen to keep only “right-size” fish and eliminating bycatch.

The U.S. and Canadian albacore fisheries in the North Pacific, made up of mostly small, family-owned boats like Rick Goché’s, received a boost last year when Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium that evaluates the ecological sustainability of wild-caught and farmed seafood, listed U.S. and Canadian troll- and pole-caught albacore from the North Pacific as a “Best Choice” due to negligible bycatch and the healthy stock of albacore in the region.

The MSC label guarantees the fish is sustainably caught.

But the biggest shift in public awareness may come from the announcement by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has certified the Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation (CHMSF), an albacore fishery of Canadian-based boats, and the U.S.-based WFOA as sustainable and well-managed.

“It’s a very rigorous, on-site process that looks at a fishery as opposed to a sweeping view of a species,” said Kerry Coughlin, the Regional Director for the Americas of the MSC. “It’s our view that’s how you get a very rigorous assessment process that’s accurate, and it’s how, in some cases where fisheries aren’t sustainable, you’re going to bring about change on the water.”

And when they see the blue MSC label in their grocer’s seafood case or on a can of albacore, “consumers can have the assurance that it is an environmentally responsible choice,” Coughlin said. And, because they come from younger fish, the fresh loins of albacore available from July through October at most retailers contain more have more “puppy fat,” as an industry spokesperson called it.

Many cooks can their own albacore.

“I think it’s moister,” Jenkins said. “It seems to have higher fat levels, particularly concentrated in the belly.” His suggestion to consumers buying a whole loin is to ask their butcher to keep the belly meat on, adding that many butchers either keep it for themselves even cut it out, which he considers a travesty.

Locally canned albacore would be almost as much of a shock to most shoppers. The major-brand tuna on their grocery shelves was caught and frozen at sea, then thawed at a cannery and cooked in big steamers, where it loses much of its natural juices and fats. It is then packed in cans and cooked again, requiring the addition of water or oil to keep it moist.

That contrasts with most local tuna, which is packed in cans when it’s fresh and cooked only once, sealing in the natural juices and not requiring the addition of oil or water to keep it moist.

Between MSC certification and a growing concern among consumers about where their food comes from, families that depend on the North Pacific albacore are seeing a brighter future for their children, and a way of life that they prize.

“On a boat, you have to have all your senses attuned to your boat and the fish and your gear, but what it comes down to is stay alive and fill up the boat,” said Rick Goché. “When I pull away from the dock and I cross the bar and I feel the ocean lifting the boat, I leave everything behind as much as possible. Sure, I miss my family, but I don’t miss all the complexities of being on land.”

Top photo of line-caught albacore from Tre-Fin Dayboat Seafood.

Buying Whole Fish (Plus a Hack for No-Hassle Freezing)

If you've been seeing ads from your grocery store or fishmonger offering whole fish for a fraction of the regular retail price but you're not sure how you'd use it, I've put together this handy guide.

There is nothing better, or better for you, than fresh, wild, local fish. Fish are packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and low in saturated fat, and the American Heart Association advises eating fish twice a week. Trouble is, the usual price per pound for fresh fillets in the butcher case puts it out of reach for most budgets. Plus many commercially available ocean species can be high in mercury, and farm-raised fish are usually fed high doses of antibiotics—think of them as factory farms for finned creatures—due to the crowded pens they're raised in. And don't get me started on the effects of these farms on our waterways.

Albacore swims just off our coastline.

But those of us on the West Coast are fortunate to have access to some of the most delicious wild fish on the planet in our populations of native wild albacore and salmon. This year the fleet of primarily family-owned boats have been pulling in a supply of albacore from the fishery that stretches from Northern California up into British Columbia. Certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, these albacore are young—just three to five years old, low in mercury and weighing in at 12 to 25 pounds—and individually caught with a hook-and-line system. (Want more info? Read my post, Albacore A to Z, for details.)

Coho spawning in Tillamook State Forest.

Wild salmon, particularly from Alaskan waters, are in plentiful supply right now, too, with stores advertising tempting steaks, fillets and roasts. But if you want to get a real deal, look for special sales events featuring whole fish.

"Whole fish?" you say. "I don't even know where to start with a whole fish!"

Well, let's talk about where you buy it. Make sure the fishmonger is a reputable source—recent studies have found that almost 20% of fish sold to consumers are mislabeled, and fish ordered at restaurants are more likely to be incorrectly labeled than fish bought at markets or grocery stores. I recently bought two whole albacore and two whole Coho salmon at New Seasons Market, a regional chain that buys its whole fish from local boats and has several one or two-day sales events per season.

Whole albacore loins ready to freeze.

When you buy whole fish, you'll need to specify how you want it packaged. The fish are already cleaned, and most stores will butcher your fish at no charge, whether you want steaks or roasts or whole fillets. I always ask for the trimmings to be included, since the head, fins and bones make terrific stock for all kinds of soups, chowders, risottos and it's my secret ingredient for making a fabulous paella. (Here's my technique for using those trimmings.)

Making stock is simple: put fish in pot, add water.

And don't believe those charts meant for chefs that say the yield from a whole albacore, gutted and without the head, is 50 percent of the weight. From the 17-pound fish (head off) that I bought, my yield was more than 80 percent after removing the loins, roasting the carcass (350° for 30 min.), picking off the meat (nearly 2 lbs.) and then making stock from the bones (2 1/2 qts.). The total weight of bones, fins and detritus that went into the compost bin was only two or three pounds. (Kind of tells you about the food waste that happens in restaurants, though, doesn't it?)

Coho fillet ready to freeze.

If you're not going to throw the fish on the grill right away—never a bad idea, but just one good-sized fillet will feed four to six—you'll also need to think about how you want to store it. With a vacuum sealer it's a done deal, since properly packaged fish will keep for as long as a year. The idea is to keep air away from the meat to prevent freezer burn, so if you don't have a vacuum sealer, what do you do?

I quizzed the fellow at the fish counter when I bought my salmon, and he said that his dad, an avid fisherman, would put a single fillet in a zip-lock bag and submerge it in a sink full of water, holding the closure just above the water line. The water pressure pushes the air out, making an airtight seal around the fish. Not having a sealing machine myself, a little smoothing of the wrinkles in the bag while it was underwater did almost as good a job as the machine. (I found that a two-gallon zip-lock bag will hold a good-sized fillet quite nicely.)

Note: Pull those pinbones!

A note: it's good to go over your fish to check for pinbones or other bones that the butchers may have missed. First, it makes it easier to just throw it on the grill without worrying about biting down on one while you're eating and, second, it keeps those pokey bones from puncturing the bag and letting air in. Just hold the fillet and feel for any bones by running your fingers down the flesh, then use a pair of (clean) needle nose pliers to pull out the bones.

All this is to say that you can have more fresh, local, sustainable fish in your diet without paying dearly for the privilege. As the old commercial used to say, "Try it, you'll like it!"

For fabulous salmon recipes, click here.

For to-die-for albacore recipes, click here.