I dont think I ever talked about the experience of carving up a 19 pound albacore tuna. I bought it, oddly enough, on Canadas Thanksgiving Day many weeks back. Alisa and I were giving my mom a tour of the fish docks, but only one boat - a tuna boat - was tied up. Ive never bought tuna as a local food, because it typically comes from some faraway place, but this time I got chatting with the young fisherman.
Each season, he said, they start in Northern California. Then they slowly fish their way up the coast, mainly staying 100 miles or so offshore, eventually ending up in the area of southern Alaska and Haida Gwaii (a.k.a. the Queen Charlotte Islands). Finally, they dock for storm season in Vancouver, selling tuna that were flash-frozen at sea.
Not strictly local, then - but neither are albacore tuna, which are highly migratory. The approach described by the young fisherman seemed sensible to the big patterns of the North Pacific and the particular biology of the species. I also knew that albacore are considered a best choice for sustainability by organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and SeaChoice: theres little or no bycatch of other species in the albacore fishery; its dolphin-friendly; and the mercury levels in the fish are relatively low. I recognize that 90 percent of the big fish in the oceans are now gone, but this is the beauty of a truly sustainable fishery: you arent drawing down the overall number of fish in the sea. Plus, the fishing techniques used to catch North Pacific albacore focus on (comparatively) small fish while letting the biggest ones go.
At $6/lbs, the tuna meat was already a big savings over the supermarket chains. Then the fisher told me I could buy a whole fish for $3/lbs. Being a cheap bastard, I went for it. Everyone else was buying 20 lbs of turkey for their holiday celebration that day; I bought a 19 pound tuna. It was one hell of a conversation piece as I took it for lunch, rode the harbour ferry, and finally took the monorail Skytrain home.
When I sat down to carve up the fish and freeze steaks and loins for later, it was one of the most powerful reminders Ive had of the importance of getting back in touch with my food. I was absolutely stunned by the beauty and physical perfection of the fish. Humans have never created anything so ideally designed for the job it needs to do. The tuna is a barrel of muscle (and therefore meat) with which it propels itself through the water. Its skin is unbelievably smooth, its pectoral fins sweeping far back toward its tail and, when not in use, neatly slipping under a hardened ridge that runs nearly the length of its body. Even the mouth is built for speed. It appears to be fairly small and streamlined, but can swing forward and unhinge to take in prey much larger than you could possibly expect.
Im thankful that I bought that albacore. If Id never done so, I would never have the appreciation and respect I now have for the tuna, and through it, the other big fish species that weve devastated around the world. Despite the sustainable fishery, I will eat perhaps this one tuna this year, sharing it with friends, and no more. Next year, maybe Ill buy one more. But I wont ever again forget that Im eating a miracle.
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