ILWACO — It’s been a stinky season for Washington and Oregon commercial tuna fishermen.
The final albacore tuna landings are offloading at local ports this week, ending was has been a tough overall 2020 fishery.
“Challenging,” “Inconsistent,” “Strange” and “Worst ever” are some of the words used to sum up the season by local processors, commercial and recreational fishermen.
Coast wide tuna catch down
Catch coast wide this season has been about two-thirds of the 20-year average, according to Western Fishboat Owners Association Executive Director Wayne Heikkila, who monitors the commercial tuna fishing season coast wide from California to Washington as part of non-profit group representing 400 albacore fishermen on the West Coast.
Heikkila said much of the smaller boat fleet was stymied by weather and categorized the season as “different” overall. Covid-related restaurant closures destroyed the blast frozen and sashimi market, Heikkila said, adding he is hopeful it can rebound in 2021.
“With restaurants shut down it was a blow, but hopefully next year they can come back,” he said.
Consumers stock up
Roughly 95% of the fish caught this season went to the canned market, instead of the traditional 50%. The surge in demand for canned fish was largely driven by consumers hoarding in the spring.
“In March people bought every can of fish there was, a lot of retailers were out of canned albacore and skipjack. A lot of canning was done to replace that. Canners are gearing up for more hoarding,” Heikkila said.
Tuna fishing is notoriously unpredictable year to year, where everything from ocean conditions to fish location can make the fishery a bonanza or bust. The covid-19 pandemic presented a new and unforeseen obstacle that further disrupted markets.
“It’s challenging. Each year a different dynamic impacts the whole market. The coronavirus has been a hard one to handle,” said Mike Shirley, co-owner of Ilwaco Landing, a commercial offloading facility in Ilwaco.
Shirley said only a fraction of albacore tuna crossed over the dock at Ilwaco Landing this season compared to 2019, which ultimately impacted processing and retail markets.
A combination of blast, brine and fresh-catch boats deliver to Ilwaco Landing during a typical commercial tuna season, each supplying different markets.
“If part of those things is missing, it makes it challenging,” Shirley said.
There are four categories to cooling fish. These include ice fish, which must meet a 30-degree core requirement; fresh fish at 32 degrees; brine frozen at -9; and blast frozen at -40.
“Blast frozen is considered for sashimi-grade tuna, it’s the number one,” Shirley said.
The freshest catch commands the highest price, making the act of chilling albacore and maintaining a specific core temperature both an art and a science — and essential to preserving the flavor of the fish in the process.
Fewer and farther
This summer the tuna were farther offshore and harder to catch, particularly for the day boats that rely on closer schools to deliver fresh tuna daily. Ideally, fish are within 50 miles of shore and schooled in dense numbers, but this year that seldom happened.
“The fish were here, just further out. They were 150-miles to 200-plus and a lot of the fresh boats don’t go out that far,” Shirley said.
The result was fewer fresh fish for retail markets and high-end sushi bars.
“There were weeks for Whole Foods we couldn’t fill orders because there was no fish consistently,” Shirley said.
The dismal fishing was echoed by day boat commercial tuna fisherman and Tre-Fin co-founder Mike Domeyer, who called it “the worst season ever.” Domeyer estimated their total catch was down approximately 70% from 2019, but is hopeful for more fishing days in October, as weather allows.
“I’m hoping it’s not over but we’re in recovery mode,” he said. “Most fish were farther offshore than they range and the season didn’t get going until late.”
August is typically the month with the heaviest commercial tuna landings for Oregon and Washington, but this year it never materialized. Recreational tuna charter fishermen also saw an inconsistent and strange season, including reporting some of their best fishing days in recent weeks, far past the typical season peak.
Shake N’ Bake skipper Clark Von Essen reported an “up and down” season with fewer landings overall, but recorded one of their best days of the season on Oct. 8, when the charter ‘plugged’ the boat with nearly 60 tuna, many weighing in the 30-pound range.
One of the silver linings to this season has been the size of the fish, instead of the little ones that sometimes plagued previous seasons. This year, albacore tuna were routinely caught in excess of 30 pounds, more than double the 12- to 14-pound average of 2019.
Finding fish this late into the season isn’t entirely uncommon, Von Essen said, adding that they’ve gone into November in previous years.
“Looking forward to Halloween tuna if weather doesn’t shut us down,” he said.