It all started with a few guys with fast boats and a shared love for fishing offshore for albacore. A decade later, Day Boat Tuna™ is setting a new standard and gaining acclaim in an emerging ultra-fresh fish market.
A charity tournament 10 years ago was considered the origin of what would become the backbone of the business.
“Before, it was a limited number of sport guys chasing albacore because of distance and safety factor,” recalled Mike Domeyer, founding member of the first modern group to catch albacore fever.
“That’s where our roots are. We began on the sport side and moved into competing in tournaments. At one point, there were a total of five tournaments on the Washington and Oregon coast.” As the fishery grew, so did the recognition that the quality of fish coming back to port from the sport boats was a different qualitythan what was being sold in the commercial market.
“It was different because of how it’s handled, how quickly it’s caught. How each individual fish gets bled, chilled and brought back,” Domeyer said.
“Initially, a lot the albacore was going into individuals canning for friends and family, who in turn noticed a difference. And then we started expanding the commercial side, what we’re calling ‘Day Boat Tuna.’ We needed someone who would not only fish, but also distribute and tell the story, so in comes Tre-Fin Foods,” Domeyer said.
In 2012, they purchased what would become their primary fishing vessel, naming it Oppor-Tuna-Ty.
A day begins with traversing one of the nation’s most notorious stretches of water, the Columbia River Bar, the heart of an area long known as “The Graveyard of the Pacific.”
“We pay very close attention to the tides,” Domeyer said. “We like a little bit of light when we cross.” Reaching the tuna grounds, typically some 40 to 60 miles offshore, takes about 1½ to 2 hours in their high-speed 900 hp boat. The crew communicates with other sport and commercial boats for safety and efficiency in finding the fish.
“It’s a big ocean out there. We work together as a team to find them. It’s what we call a ‘wolfpack.’ If one guy finds them, we run up there and vice-versa. It’s good to have a network you can rely on for safety and for fishing,” Aaron Walker said. Walker is among a co-op of fishermen — five boats total — that contribute to the catch, including F/V Fat Cat, F/V Beast Mode, F/V Bucket List, F/V Scarab.
“Typically, we’ll fish until mid- or late-afternoon followed by another two-hour run back in. Mid-to-late evening we’ll show up at the dock, put fuel on for the next day and hoist all the fish off. All the fish will be weighed and packed on ice and brought over to the processing center where orders for the next day are packed,” explained Domeyer. A majority of the tuna — up to 70 percent — are distributed whole without processing. The remainder are loined, smoked, canned or vacuum packed. Once those orders are completed, it’s packed up in a delivery van and down the road.
Chilling the albacore quickly, and maintaining a specific core temperature is considered both an art and a science — and essential to preserving the flavor of the fish in the process. Before the boat leaves port for tuna, it’s loaded with more than two tons of ice in eight different compartments.
“The fish need to be stacked in a particular way to distribute the weight and tightly in the ice so that they arrive at 32 degrees at the end of the day,” Domeyer said. The fish, however, never actually freeze. Instead, it’s a delicate balance on the border in between in a saltwater ice slurry.
“Between 31 and 33 degrees, you want it right at the freezing point but not frozen. There’s an art and a science to it,” Wayne Harmond explained “That’s really the secret to the quality of the fish, the time in which you bring it to that temperature. And there are ways that we handle it to most effectively get it down and maintain it at 32 degrees.” Each fish is hook-and-line caught and never gaffed.
“The fish are never gaffed and are bled to preserve the quality of the meat and immediately chilled. The fish are handled differently preserving the quality and condition,” Harmond said. The way the albacore are handled evolved from their sport fishing roots, where gaffing is the standard. Catering to more discerning clientele, Domeyer had to replace the speed and ease of a gaff with a lighter-handed approach.
“We heard are customers respond negatively to it,” Domeyer said, adding that they now use a net to hoist fish into the boat.
“We completely changed the way we handled the fish. To our detriment, it slows our production down immensely, but it’s aesthetically more presentable and we have less loss,” he said.
A small, sustainable-food seeking market in Portland was the first commercial customer.
“Flying Fish was our fist commercial client. They had chefs that were interested in finding these products and creating a transparent system,” Domeyer said. As a result, chefs could have a more intimate connection to the dishes and customers they were serving in high-end restaurants in downtown Portland.
“We have six to 10 large commercial clients and at least another dozen high-end restaurants. It grows every day,” Harmond said adding that restaurants are realizing the benefits to using the freshest albacore available. It has already been served seasonally at many of Portland’s top restaurants including: Bamboo Sushi, Paley’s Place, Blue Hour, Imperial, 23 Hoyt, Clark Lewis, Urban Farmer, Departure. The distributors are part of this transparent process too. A greater awareness regarding food sources has been a trend noticed by Harmond.
“They want to know where the source of their food comes from. And ours is one of the easiest to trace because it never leaves our hands,” he said. “It’s our people that catch it, our people that process it and our people that deliver it into the consumers hands.”
Getting albacore tuna from 50 miles offshore to a dinner plate in Portland in less than 48 hours was the goal.
“When we wrote up the model, our initial challenge was 48 hours from the time the tuna came out of the water until it appeared on a plate,” Domeyer said. The system has since been streamlined into a 36-hour process, in spite of several unpredictable circumstances from logistics to weather.
“You have to effectively run a boat that has high operating costs, produce a number of fish that must be brought back timely,” Domeyer said. The business model is based on bringing “the best, freshest, local, product available to the market.”
Logistics and seasons limit the availability of fresh fish year around, so the next step is to have highest quality frozen fish according to Harmond. Even while frozen, the product is still sushi-grade because of the extraordinary measures in handling the fish, Harmond said.
“The speed and care that we take to get it back and processed translates in the frozen process. We’ve found that because of this business model, we have a better product and people and chefs are responding to it,” he said. “We’re creating a new quality standard, and it’s shaking things up a little bit.” Providing the highest-quality frozen product is seen as a way to assure year-around availability and stabilize sales.
“We have to be able to extend the season to stay financially viable,” Harmond summed up.
While El Niño is the source of disdain among Dungeness and shrimp fishermen, its impact tuna hasn’t been as widely condemned. Typically, the tuna begin to show up in numbers in July.
“We had a surprise this year,” Harmond said, “Our first trip was June 16.” In 2014, fishing began in the middle of July, according to Harmond. But “Because of El Niño, this warm water trend, it came much earlier this year. The second week of June people were out looking for them,” he said. Once the albacore arrive, there’s typically 14 weeks of solid fishing before they move on.
“The tuna are coming earlier and staying longer. It’s bringing with it a lot of migratory fish that normally wouldn’t be this far north. We’re seeing some anomalies of blue fin tuna, yellow fin tuna and dorado. The fishery up here is changing a bit and we’re taking advantage of it,” Harmond said.
The tuna season is longer, the catches are higher and the quality is the best in years.
“If you compare this year’s tuna, you would see the highest quality in probably about eight years,” Harmond said.
“There was a big El Niño warming trend about eight years ago, and we were fishing further south. As far as numbers, this is the highest we’ve had since we’ve been in business.” A tally is taken for each albacore caught and factored into an average weight across the season. The first year they averaged 18.5 pounds, last year it was “just shy of 20 pounds.” This year they are expecting to eclipse a 20-pound average.
Gorging on anchovies and squid, the albacore get progressively bigger as the season turns to fall.
“In October, we’ll hope to see some 40 pounders,” Harmond said.
Reaching the tuna grounds remains as one of the biggest barriers, but improvements in technology are allowing more people to access albacore offshore.
“Over the years, four stroke motors and electronics have really extended the range of small boats. And I think the tuna have always been out there, but just getting out there 50-60 miles has been somewhat of a Christopher Columbus-type scenario — ‘like what’s what’s out there?’ But with technology improving and more people going, and finding success, the word has spread about what an amazing fishery we actually have out here, which is some of the best in the world,” Walker said. Most people know a salmon when the see one, but a whole albacore can appear “alien” to some. Domeyer set up a stand at the Ilwaco Market as a way to engage with locals and raise awareness about the fishery, complete with a whole albacore on a bed of ice.
“Half the people that walked up said ‘Oh my gosh,’ what is that?” Domeyer recalled.
“This has been a great source of food, but nobody recognizes that this is in our backyard every year. We want to change that storyline and make it a staple,” he said.
Establishing albacore as a year-around staple for people in the Pacific Northwest is the next step, according to Domeyer.
“We just launched our community-supported fishery (CSF) model,” he said. A CSF serves as an alternative to selling fresh, locally sourced seafood direct to consumers from local fishermen.
“We foresee a distribution system to become the purveyors of Day Boat Tuna™ to the market providing not only to wholesale and restaurant market, but also locals and this become a staple for us in Pacific Northwest as a year-around protein. We see this as a healthy alternative,” Domeyer said.
“We see a lot of growth potential. Currently, 70 percent of our whole fish go down the road to distribution, but we could see it going into our CSF model as well.” The fish would be sold in “shares.” A share would cost a set amount for 20 pounds of frozen, vacuum-packed albacore loins. Customers would pay half up front and the remainder at pickup, which Domeyer said would occur three or four times per year. For more information, visit www.dayboattuna.com