The life of Cannery Row that John Steinbeck wrote about in the 1930s described dozens of coastal communities from California to Washington. One of the largest cannery towns was Astoria, Oregon, located where the West’s largest river joins the world’s largest ocean.
More than 30 commercial fish canneries once operated here, along the lower Columbia River. But in the 1970s, after the Pacific sardine fishery collapsed and salmon runs were dwindling, the last of the big tuna canneries moved to Asia in search of cheaper labor and warmer waters.
But West Coast fishermen proved to be as spirited as their fictional characters. In order to fish the Pacific, a commercial fisherman needs to know the water, the weather, the fish, the gear, how to fix a diesel engine in a nine-foot swell, and how to clean and store a fresh-caught tuna to keep it fresh until landing. Now many of these men and women are also learning how to run their own canneries, create seafood recipes, and develop product lines for the marketplace. Oregon’s fishing communities are diversifying with new and better markets for their seafood, with help from the Community Seafood Initiative (CSI), a partnership that brings together the research expertise of OSU with the financial expertise of ShoreBank Enterprise Pacific, a nonprofit community-development finance institution.
The initiative’s partners connect people to funding and scientific expertise for finding new and better ways to handle seafood from boat to market.
Let’s start in the boat, 50 miles off the Oregon coast. It’s late summer, and the warm blue water of the California current is pushing albacore tuna within reach of Oregon’s fleet of small, hand-line trollers. Pacific albacore are caught one at a time on hook-and-line jigs, a precise—although time-consuming—method of targeting tuna without harming other species or the ocean environment in the process.
Albacore are basically warm-blooded, fishermen tell us. These small tuna come over the stern of the boat 15 degrees warmer than the water. The first hour on board is critical to cleaning and chilling the fish to ensure freshness. OSU research has developed ways of bleeding, chilling, and storing the fish to preserve the fresh flavor and quality of the catch. The extra time and expense is repaid when Oregon albacore reach specialty markets looking for top-quality sushi-grade tuna.
Oregon albacore has caught the attention of health-conscious consumers interested in the benefits of West Coast albacore’s high levels of omega-3 oils, nutrients that may protect human heart and brain function. The oils come from the rich diet that migrating albacore find in cold West Coast waters. Large commercial canneries would steam their tuna before canning, which dripped away most of the natural oils. New methods of microcanning retain those oils and all their potential health benefits. By adding fresh garlic or locally grown herbs, Oregon’s enterprising new microcanneries have entirely reinvented canned tuna; and five-star chefs around the nation are serving tuna and noodles with new gourmet flair.
Behind much of this innovation is the Consumer Seafood Initiative, part of the $28.2 million Oregon Innovation Plan aimed at growing Oregon’s presence in world markets by advancing some of the state’s most promising industries, including marketing high-quality, value-added seafood. In 2002, research at OSU’s Seafood Lab helped CSI launch its first value-added seafood project, the development of prepacked oyster shooters and an in-the-shell shucking method to add value to the region’s oyster industry.
CSI supported the development of a seafood traceability system that helps consumers learn the “who, what, where, and how” of Oregon seafood right at the marketplace.
More recently, CSI has supported the development of a seafood traceability system that helps consumers learn the “who, what, where and how” of Oregon seafood right at the marketplace. Pacific Fish Trax is a combination scientific venture and public outreach effort that is designed to ultimately shed light on the state’s commercial fishing industry and strengthen wild fish runs.
“All of the participants share the goal of using science to improve management and help sustain our seafood harvest,” said Gil Sylvia, an OSU seafood economist and superintendent of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport.
The system was unveiled last winter at New Seasons Markets in Portland. Shoppers who purchase albacore tuna fillets can stop at kiosks in the store where scanners read a bar code on the label to reveal information about the fish: the fisherman who caught it, the boat from which it was caught, and the processor who packaged it. More information is available at the Pacific Fish Trax Web site, where shoppers can track maps and graphics showing ocean conditions, water temperatures, and even the contour of the seafloor where fishermen are working.
“It’s a way of connecting people directly to the food they eat,” Sylvia said. Because of recent news about contaminated food and the potential for bioterrorism, government agencies and individual consumers are paying more attention to where food comes from. The pilot project was originally designed to track Oregon’s ocean salmon, but project coordinators focused on albacore after regulations imposed to protect a weak run of Sacramento River salmon prompted the widespread closure of the Pacific Ocean to salmon fishing in 2008.
As each fish is caught, fishermen attach a barcode tag to the tail fin with a link to an online database that records the fish’s journey from ocean to market. Different consumers will be able to enter the tracking number and find information tailored to their needs: where, when, and how the fish was caught; its size and fat content; and all the steps in its processing.
“We look at seafood traceability as a positive marketing tool for fishermen and an essential piece in tracking food safety,” Sylvia said. It is one more stamp of quality that Oregon’s coastal communities are putting on their products, the finest seafood in the world.
Fish absorb mercury from the environment through their gills and from their food. Some fish have more of this organic methylmercury in their tissues than others, depending on their environment and how far up they are in the food chain. A general rule of thumb is that the larger or older the fish, the higher the level of methylmercury in its flesh. A very large bluefin tuna or swordfish, for example, will tend to have accumulated relatively high levels of mercury.
Although all fish have trace amounts of methylmercury, most fish have less than 0.1 parts per million (ppm), well below the allowable levels of 1.0 ppm mercury content that the U.S. has set for fish and seafood products. To limit mercury consumption for children and for women of child-bearing age, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that it is safe to eat up to 12 ounces a week of low-mercury fish, avoiding some species such as shark and swordfish.
Locally caught Oregon salmon, shrimp, flounder, and oysters are very low in mercury. But up until recently, mercury content of tuna was averaged for all species, making no distinction between small, young albacore from the cold north Pacific and the much larger, older tuna from the warm south Pacific.
So OSU researchers sought to compare mercury content among all the major commercial species of tuna. They found that small, young albacore tuna caught off the Pacific Northwest coast have low mercury levels, below most commercial brands and below FDA guidelines.
Not only is locally caught albacore safely below thresholds for mercury, there is good evidence that eating it is beneficial to your health, according to Michael Morrissey, superintendent of the Food Innovation Center in Portland. Local albacore is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and improve brain health. One of those omega-3 fatty acids, DHA, found only in fish, is an important nutrient for infant vision and cognitive brain development.