A Drop in the Ocean
Trolling the Waters with St. Jude Tuna
STORY BY NICOLE CAPOZZIELLO
PHOTOS BY HILARY MCMULLEN
Canned albacore tuna has been a staple of American sandwiches and casseroles since the tuna industry took off in the early 1900s. Historically the most pedestrian of fish, albacore is more memorable for its smell than its taste, which we often mask with mayonnaise and salt.
But if you’ve tasted St. Jude Tuna, you certainly haven’t forgotten it. Mild, rich, and succulent, it’s a long cast from the canned tuna that has stocked most Americans’ cupboards for the past century.
St. Jude Tuna has been the work and livelihood of Joe and Joyce Malley since they began marketing it in Seattle around 2000. These days, you may see their albacore tuna on the menu at a local restaurant, on the shelf at PCC markets, or for sale (in cans, as jerky, in pouches, and frozen as filets) at local farmers markets like Ballard, Columbia City, and Bellevue.
I meet with Joe on a Monday in March. His van has just gotten a flat tire en route from a delivery, but he’s hardly frazzled — this is a man who spent decades as owner-operator of his own fishing boat, where he learned a lot, reflected a lot, read a lot, and “made a lot of mistakes,” he says with a chuckle and a shake of his head.
Now in his 60s, Joe got his start sport fishing while growing up on Long Island. In the 1970s, he left a doctoral math program to become a commercial fisherman on the West Coast, fishing salmon, halibut, cod, and, eventually, albacore tuna.
Unsurprisingly, the fishing industry has gone through some changes since the 1970s, and the modest albacore in particular has been at the center of conversations on a range of issues, from mercury levels to bycatch, a term for marine animals caught unintentionally, becoming casualties of fishing industry practices.
Most commercial albacore fishing is done using a technique called longlining, in which many baited hooks (often upwards of 2,000) are set, stretching for miles. This method fosters disconnection: boats and the corporate fishermen working on them buoy off and leave the lines, then return hours later to retrieve their catch.
Longlining can cause many tuna to die on the hooks, greatly reducing their quality and, thus, value. And longlining often results in substantial bycatch, as the bait attracts everything from sharks to dolphins to sea turtles. With an estimated 6,000 longliners on the open sea, contracting with huge companies like StarKist and Bumble Bee, the impact on the ocean’s fragile ecosystems is significant.
Because of the damage to endangered species, as well as catching species in areas that are overfished, nearly all tuna caught by deep-set or pelagic longlines earns the rating of “Avoid” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
Whereas corporate fishermen on longliners are the norm worldwide, West Coast fishermen are typically owner-operators. “An owner-operator is totally immersed in what he’s doing,” says Joe, “and since it’s his whole life, it’s his whole pride.”
It’s this pride that has kept Joe doing things the way he’s done them all these years. In the Pacific Northwest, his 95-foot fishing vessel, St. Jude, is one of only about a dozen high-seas albacore trollers.
The crew aboard the St. Jude travels throughout the north and south Pacific, catching juvenile albacore throughout the summer and fall. Trips can vary greatly based on catch rate. “The best trip we ever had was 27 days — the fishing was so good that we had to shut down every day by 11 a.m. to allow our freezers to catch up,” says Joe. Trips are usually longer though, with the boat traveling at a speed of 6.5 knots and covering a distance of about 165 miles a day in fuel conservation mode.
“One of my primary goals is to persuade people that the best fish — the freshest fish you can buy — is typically frozen at sea.” Joe clarifies: “If a fresh fish was caught three hours ago, held in cool conditions, dressed, bled, and everything has been done right, then that can be the best fish money can buy.” But on every other occasion, by the time fish goes through the conventional process, the quality has degraded, unless it’s been carefully and swiftly frozen at sea.
The albacore St. Jude Tuna catches are usually 3 to 5 years old, weighing between 11 and 16 pounds. By comparison, many albacore caught on longliners are around 15 years old, weighing in at over 60 pounds. Young albacore hang out in water temperatures between 58 and 65 degrees, which, Joe says, basically belong solely to the albacore, as it’s too warm for salmon and too cold for fish like Mahi and ono.
The young albacore pig out, eating rich diets of krill, squid, and anchovies, ultimately making them fattier and vastly tastier, particularly for sushi. As albacore mature, they head to warmer waters to pursue ballyhoo, flying fish, “and other speed demons” that take a lot more work for the albacore to catch, thus making the albacore much leaner. Whiteness signifies quality: the whiter the albacore, the fattier their diet and “how good life was to them before they met me, whereupon it turned abruptly sour.”
“My compulsion is to maximize the value of those creatures whose lives I’ve ended,” says Joe. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Trolling for albacore consists of setting up individual lines with jigs (a type of lure). This practice results in almost no bycatch — in fact, the instances are so rare that Joe can count them on one hand. Troll- and pole-caught albacore is rated a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, meaning that numbers are healthy and bycatch and habitat impacts are minimal.
Once pulled on board the St. Jude, the albacore land on a cushioned platform, which minimizes bruising. The first step is to brain stun the fish, a humane step that minimizes suffering, stabilizes their body temperature, and immobilizes them, which prevents them from flopping around and bruising. Next, you bleed the fish, essentially opening their veins to let the blood out. The fish are rinsed and frozen to the core in under 12 hours, which Joe says is key to maintaining the bite appeal — another essential aspect for high-quality albacore. “If you don’t freeze albacore fast enough, that nice meaty texture that we all like goes away very easily. It’s like oatmeal.”
This undertaking of carefully treating the fish onboard naturally limits the amount the St. Jude can catch, as there’s only so much time to properly care for the fish and only so much freezer space in which to store them.
“In every fishing industry, there’s this philosophy of, ‘Hey, if the price is no good, I’ll just catch more,’” says Joe. It’s a perspective rarely challenged by policy and often furthered by the nature of the industry, where buyers hold an immense amount of power to control pricing. And, of course, this shortsightedness is reinforced by the unfathomable vastness of the ocean. The same sense of smallness that renders us in awe as we stand at our ocean’s shore has abetted us in ceaselessly dumping our trash into the sea and taking from its resources.
“When it comes to living creatures and limited natural resources, I think you’ve got to have a different program,” says Joe, who’s passionate but careful with his words.
It’s a meticulous, unforgiving philosophy that’s kept Joe taking the long route for, well, his entire life — and one that leads to an unparalleled product. “We very seldom lose a customer,” Joe says, whose fish is on the menu everywhere from The Herb Farm to Maria Hines’ Tilth to the Seattle Seahawks dining hall menu.
When I ask him what his favorite preparation of albacore is, it takes some considering. Joe loves canned tuna in a green salad and seared tuna fillets. But for him, the ultimate celebration of the fish is nigiri style: a perfect slice of raw albacore with a dab of wasabi, placed atop well-seasoned rice.
“Typically, when I’m fishing for a species of fish, the last thing I want to see on my plate is that fish,” says Joe. “But albacore is a little different. They’re such an innocuous, easy-to-like fish, that I can eat that pretty much any time.”
Joe’s aspiration of selling sustainably caught, carefully prepared tuna has found an audience in Seattle, where many consumers — whether at the farmers market, in the grocery store aisle, or peering at a menu — are inclined to look at the big picture and ask the questions Joe asks. Where does this come from? What impact did it have?
“I’m kind of a believer in the small,” says Joe. “I wish that instead of building a giant windmill farm, we each had little windmills attached to our houses, independent and generating their own electricity. I would like more autonomy. I would like people to be able to determine their fate, future. I would like the world to be …” he pauses and sighs, “a very different place than it is right now.”
With each fish Joe catches and sells, he lives out that vision. And he’ll get up and do it again tomorrow.
Nicole Capozziello is a freelance writer and tour guide at Theo Chocolate.