It tastes great with a bit of mayo, sweet pickles and a handful of diced onion.

Or instead, you might try it with a coffee crust, seared rare and drizzled with a tangy sesame glaze.

It’s Pacific Albacore season in Oregon, and fishermen, chefs, processors and enthusiastic eaters are putting the fish on tables all around the state.

The fishery has deep roots on the North Coast, stretching back to the 1920s, when canneries lined the Astoria waterfront.

While those days are gone, demand for albacore is on the rise, chefs and industry insiders say.

That’s because people are finally getting the word that the fishery is local and sustainable, said Western Fishboat Owners Association Executive Director Wayne Heikkila.

“We’ve been pushing this for a few years,” he said. “There actually is a local fishery here for albacore right in our back yard.”

And, the fish tastes delicious in myriad dishes – including the beloved tuna salad sandwich – thanks to its buttery rich texture, especially when cooked medium rare or even when served completely raw.

Right now, many of Astoria’s best restaurants have albacore on the menu.

Gordon Clement, chef at Clemente’s Restaurant in Astoria, hopes albacore continues to catch on without getting too big.

“It seems like we’re at the forefront, locally if not nationally,” Clement said.

Canning has also seen a surge in popularity, from people pulling batches of albacore out of their home canners to area microcanneries that ship their products all over the world.

Even though everyone’s hungry for fish this year, the schools of Pacific Albacore off the coast haven’t exactly been cooperating. Fishermen are still struggling to find where the schools are this year, though when their holds are full, they’re getting paid well for the effort, Heikkila said.

Along with the uptick in popularity, the strained supply this year is driving up the ex-vessel prices to almost twice where they were just a few years ago.

“We hope everyone gets enough,” Heikkila said.

At sea

Albacore can be fished all year, but the migratory fish come closer to the West Coast around mid-summer. Fishermen usually hit the thick of the season by mid-July, homing in on where schools are and bringing their catch to local processors.

In port in Ilwaco, Wash., deckhand Larry Goche has spent the last few days on the boat he fishes with his brother, the Peso II, cleaning and fine-tuning in the engine room, preparing for their next trip.

This is Goche’s third season fishing for albacore, and Tuesday he demonstrated how the fish are caught and stored while at sea.

Troll boats catch fish by towing ten to twenty fishing lines from their outriggers. At the end of each line is a jig – a rubbery fishing lure with a barbless hook in it – designed to look like a squid.

The Peso II has an old-fashioned bell that alerts Goche when a fish has taken the bait, but that often isn’t needed to let him know when fish are close by, he said.

 “I’ll hear a little squeak in the rigging,” Goche said.

Because jigs are designed to catch fish on the ocean’s surface, they don’t reach down far enough to catch the older, larger albacore that swim in deep waters. Oregon’s troll-caught albacore is younger, tastier, and has a higher fat content than its older counterparts. Because the smaller albacore eat shrimp, their mercury content is low, Clement said.

Goche pulls the fish out of the water, gaffing it – or stabbing it – in the brain right away. Albacore can easily get bruised if it thrashes about or makes contact with anything hard, even after it is dead, so each fish must be handled with care, Goche said.

 Once caught, it is allowed to bleed out for about 10 minutes before being put into a brine tank containing icy water and a hefty dose of salt. There, they will slowly freeze through to their cores before being transferred to the hold.

On land

Just steps from the Skipanon River, three seasoned fileters stand around a metal table with sharpened knives, artfully carving the four loins from each whole fish. They’re working at Oregon Ocean processing plant  in Warrenton, prepping fish to run through a 1940s-era steam canner.

Wielding a fish knife is Shirley Tischer, who has been working the job on and off in Astoria canneries since 1972. Now she works part time at Skipanon Brand Seafood, short days a couple of times a week, getting busiest in July and August. The processor makes canned tuna, salmon and sturgeon, all caught locally and sold under their own Skipanon Brand.

Skipanon’s canned tuna benefits from the special treatment it gets before being packed into 4-, 6- and -ounce cans, and tastes better because it goes into the can fresh, said Skipanon Brand Seafood’s assistant marketer Mark Thompson.

“All that hand trimming, that doesn’t always happen,” Thompson said.

Owner Mark Kujala and his wife Alana sell their canned tuna throughout Northwest Oregon, and bring loins to the Beaverton Farmers Market for sale every Saturday, and they’ve been doing it for 16 years.

“It’s the largest agricultural market in the state of Oregon,” Alana Kujala said.

The small processing plant was founded by Mark Kujala’s father, Norman Kujala, in 1978, and is now run by his sons, Mark and fisherman Paul Kujala.

On the table

Step into Clemente’s Restaurant, and you’ll find albacore in abundance on the menu right now.

 Chef Clement has found that people from all over the world are requesting the fish. He uses the smallest sashimi-grade albacore he can find, size-graded as “peanuts,” because they have a higher fat content and a noticeably better texture.

 One way he can tell the difference is the greasy residue left on his hands after working with the fish.

“That’s a good thing,” he said.

Diners from Japan, Europe and elsewhere love the way they prepare it, even though that often means eating it raw or partially cooked.

For some, that presents a challenge, Clement said.

“Part of our challenge is to get someone to trust us enough to prepare it the way it is best served,” he explained.

When albacore is cooked all the way through, it can get dry and tough. All the flavorful fats disappear, Clement said.

“The fats that it contains are so delicious.”

Clemente’s buys its fish from either Bornstein’s or Ocean Beauty, two local processors.

 Just a few blocks away, Chef Chris Holen at Baked Alaska Restaurant also has albacore on his menu. He dredges wedges of it in rice flour for a tempura-style fish and chips, rolls whole loins in ground coffee and serves it Hawaiian poke-style in a sesame-honey glaze.

The Thundermuck Tuna dish, crusted in local coffee and seared rare, has taken a few years to catch on with locals as well as tourists, Holen said.

He’s been patient, and now it’s a favorite.

“We don’t exist if locals don’t eat here, so we’re making food for the locals,” Holen said Tuesday. “It’s come a long way.”

      

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