ASTORIA — Back-to-back poor albacore tuna seasons have slashed production for canneries on both sides of the Columbia. In Astoria, Northwest Wild Products has canned approximately half their typical total, about 25 cases, an amount they say will likely sell out before the New Year. Sportmen’s Cannery in Seaview reported canning around 8,000 pounds of albacore — 20,000 pounds less than last season.
Two terrible years
Sportsmen’s Cannery co-owner Tina Ward estimated that tuna canning, including retail sales and processing for sport fishermen, usually accounts for “at least 70 percent” of their business.
“Salmon is great and it was a miracle we had sturgeon, but tuna is the big one without a doubt,” Ward said. “Tuna is the one we depend on, it keeps the doors open.”
While some of the best albacore fishing of the season occurred in September, most has already stopped for the season.
“All the sport boats gave up earlier in the season and aren’t around to catch them,” Ward said. “The few boats that are out are getting them.”
Retail sales from the canned commercial catch are important, but the sport fishermen who bring their catch in to be processed are vital for the cannery.
“The retail sales don’t sustain us,” Ward said. “We depend a lot on the sport guys.”
When fewer tuna are caught, it causes an economic chain reaction that starts with a higher commercial price.
“Typically, the sport fish we process generates the money to buy the commercial fish, but that money wasn’t here this year,” Ward said. “We’re taking a step backward and spending savings to buy our commercial fish just to sell through the winter.” Since 2001, Ward has only taken such measures the past two years.
“Last year was about the same,” she said. “It wasn’t a great year last year and this year is definitely worse. The last two years have been terrible. We’re hoping for a turnaround.”
The cannery purchased 28,000 pounds of tuna in 2016, but only 8,000 pounds this year. Limited catch and a higher commercial price — up to $1 more per pound than last season — were the primary reasons.
“We’re almost 20,000 pounds behind what we bought last year,” Ward said. “We buy enough to hopefully get us through to the following tuna season.”
The cannery is currently still selling tuna canned last season, and the fish caught this year will sit until next summer.
“On a good year, it can sit for a year and half before we sell it,” Ward said, adding that tuna gets more mellow over that period.
“With age it definitely gets better,” Ward said.
Limited stock after slow season
Canned Chinook salmon is a strong seller, but tuna is the true king. While many customers will grab a can of salmon sporadically, tuna enthusiasts loyally place orders by the case each year.
“People want quantity when it comes to tuna; the other stuff they often just want to try,” Northwest Wild Products employee Tryan Hartill said.
“Normally, we put up a lot of cases, but we’ve only been able to feed some to the cannery.” The market typically stocks 60 cases (of 24 cans) each season, that’s expected to last the entire year.
“This year we’ve 25 cases,” Hartill said. “Which might last through Christmas.”
Northwest Wild Products typically buys between 50,000 to 100,000 pounds of albacore from commercial fishermen each season. This year, however, they’ve purchased only about 20,000 pounds.
“I’ve worked here for eight years, and this is by far the worst (for tuna),” Hartill said. “Last year was down 40 percent compared to normal years and this year has been half of that.”
Hartill said the shortage of supply has caused the commercial tuna price to rise up to $3.25 per pound, pushing the market price to $4 per pound.
“We went to $4.25 and the customers thought we were gouging so went back down to $4,” he said. “Normally, we charge customer about $2.75 per pound. We’re actually paying more than what we usually charge. We try to make a dollar a pound, about $15 a fish, but we’re making about 60 cents a pound, which, after factoring in expenses, including ice and taxes, means you’re not making anything.”
A former commercial fishermen, Hartill has been surprised by just how slow the season has been.
“It was always a consistent fishery. There was never any doubt that they were out there, you just had to get them. A good day you would catch 150 fish and a bad day you would catch 30. Now they’re not even getting that, they’re getting 10 a day. They’re going out for three days and coming back with 40 fish. It’s been a big money loser, especially for the fishermen used to getting more.”
The market typically sells thousands of pounds of whole fish to customers coming from Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
“They will plan a vacation around canning tuna. They call in their order and already have their hotels,” Hartill said. “They’ll take 50-100 pounds of meat. 200 pounds of whole fish. It’s just all over the map of what everyone wants to take home. Every one of those sales is money we’ve lost out on this year. It’s just been a total bust.”