When albacore tuna are schooling in the blue waters off the Oregon coast, fishermen don’t get much rest. A dozen trolling lines unspool off the stern of a boat and trail their bright-orange lures. A crewman leans over and hauls in a line, hand over hand. In a sudden eruption of spray, a silvery torpedo-shaped fish bursts through the waves, its slender pectoral fins rising like wings. The crewman unhooks the fish and flings it into the bleeding trough, then reaches for another line and begins to pull again.
A second crewman seizes the fish from the trough and makes a firm, swift cut under the chin. Blood drains from the wound and puddles down the trough. Albacore require bleeding and chilling as soon as they are landed. The crewman buries the bled fish in ice or in the freezer and hustles back as another fish plops into the trough.
“There’s not a lot of time to catch your breath,” says Nancy Fitzpatrick, whose husband Mike fishes for albacore and salmon on the F/V Sea Rose out of Newport, Oregon.
Sea Rose is one of a fleet of more than 400 mostly family-owned boats that operate out of Oregon ports from Astoria to Brookings, catching the 12- to 20-pound fish one at a time with trolling gear or single-line poles. These fishing methods, along with international cooperation to regulate catches worldwide, make Pacific Northwest albacore a sustainable seafood choice.
Albacore is also a safe choice, and OSU’s Seafood Laboratory is helping to keep it that way. “With seafood, safety is always a challenge,” says Christina DeWitt, director of the Seafood Lab, part of OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station. “And safety is tied to the quality of processing and handling.”
More than most seafood, albacore needs special handling. It’s imperative to chill the flesh quickly—otherwise it develops a toxin that can cause a severe histamine reaction. This toxin has not been a problem in Oregon-caught albacore, DeWitt says. “Our fish are younger, smaller, and come from colder waters” than other tuna species. And, she adds, Northwest albacore fishermen are well aware of the danger and are diligent about icing or freezing their catch immediately.
A couple of years ago, DeWitt found herself in the middle of a dispute between fishermen and federal regulators over a new interpretation of a seafood-processing rule. Regulators were calling for detailed onboard recordkeeping of catch times and fish and water temperatures. They wanted documentation that the catch had been handled safely.
Such a system is appropriate for trawlers, seiners, and large processing ships that process fish in bulk quantities, says DeWitt. “But our albacore fleet catches fish by hook and line, one at a time,” and the fish are typically iced or frozen within minutes.
The new rule called for a separate record for every single fish. DeWitt met with the fishermen and listened to their concerns. Then she traveled to Washington, D.C. and spoke to regulators at the FDA’s Office of Seafood Safety. “I told them how fish are caught here, and we discussed how we could design a record-keeping system that would not be over-laborious to the fishermen.”
Listening to both regulators and fishermen, DeWitt drafted a set of handling guidelines that fulfilled the intent of the new rule. She devised a simple log sheet for noting catch periods, type and effectiveness of chilling, and other pertinent records.
“We demystified the record-keeping so that we could get buy-in from the fishermen,” says DeWitt.
The economic payoff of effective regulations may be hard to quantify, says DeWitt, but it’s real. Without the simpler system, “each vessel might have needed an additional crew member to handle the monitoring and record-keeping,” she says. “That would clearly have been a financial burden.”
The system hasn’t been formally blessed by regulators, but they’re happy with the process used to develop it, DeWitt says. And the processors and restaurants that buy the fish—and that are ultimately answerable for its safety—are happy with the added accountability.