Monday, October 26, 2009

Attention Locavores: Oregon Tuna Tops List

Food Dude, Portland food blogger and man of mystery, recently wrote about an article in the Washington Post reporting that "the influential Monterey Bay Aquarium is releasing a new set of rankings that identifies fish that are not only fished sustainably but are also rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, a key dietary component in reducing the risk of heart disease. Farmed mussels and oysters make the list, along with line- or pole-caught albacore tuna, wild-caught Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines."

A typical West Coast fishing boat.

Called "Super Green," it adds a new level to the Aquarium's existing system of rating fish as red for avoid, yellow for consume sparingly and green for eat without guilt. This piqued my interest because I've been buying Oregon line-caught canned tuna lately after finding out that the smaller, 10-12 lb. tuna caught in the waters off our coast (and, indeed, the whole West Coast) is younger than the very large, much older tuna caught in the deeper oceans and sold by most major brands. Because these young tuna caught off our coast have spent much less time in the ocean, they've had less exposure to contaminants like mercury.

The big brand tunas are also cooked when they get to the processing facilities, losing much of their natural fat and juices, necessitating additives like water or oil. Adding insult to injury, they're then cooked again after they've been canned. Oregon tuna, on the other hand, is usually canned fresh and cooked only after canning, retaining its own juices that keep it moist and flavorful. Plus those juices are a terrific addition to whatever you're making with the tuna, whether in a salad, mixed with pasta or on a sandwich.

One interesting factoid about West Coast tuna is that, for those of you who will only use cool Euro brands like Ortiz? The tuna you're eating in those groovy yellow tins is often caught in the waters off your own coast. So you're paying for it to be shipped over there, canned, then shipped back here for you to buy. Not the most sustainable model, when you think about it.

The drawback? Because the tuna caught off our coast is line-caught, each fish is brought on board by hand, one and a time, by individual fishermen, often on smaller, owner-operated boats rather than the giant fishing trawlers that supply the fish used by the big brands. So these 6-oz. tins can run in the neighborhood of four bucks, much more than the stuff you buy at Safeway or Trader Joe's. On the other hand, if you're like me, you don't use that much tuna on a monthly basis, and it's worth it to have lower mercury, better flavor and to be supporting a local, sustainable industry.

At the very least, it's worth knowing about the next time you reach for that can of tuna.

Top photo, Beth Nakamura, The Oregonian. Fishing boat from the Western Fishboat Owners Association.

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