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Yes We Canned

Catalina Offshore gets into the growing local, sustainable canned tuna game


Update and Correction: The post has been updated to reflect that Federal law mandates that no bycatch (dolphins, turtles, and sharks) makes it into canned tuna from US companies.

Mom plastered it in her casseroles like meat concrete. She plopped it in sandwiches. She dumped it in a bowl with mayonnaise. Out of the can, big-brand tuna looked and smelled like a meat-potpourri designed to arouse house cats. It was stringy, chunky, watery—not quite liquid, not quite solid. It existed in this food nether-texture that’s best described as sadness.

They call it “chicken of the sea,” but it looks more like a chicken mistook a wood chipper for its coop.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved a good tuna sandwich, with celery and onion salt and capers. Tuna melts were my jam. But it always seemed like canned tuna could be, I dunno, less crappy.

San Diego was built on canned tuna—the largest tuna fleet in the world at one point, parked off San Diego Harbor. Van Camp, Bumblebee—most of the tuna giants were based here. A sizeable portion of Point Loma was built on tuna money. It was the city’s third largest industry behind the navy and aerospace.

In the 50s, American fishermen started to feel the heat from Asian and Latin American boats who paid their crews far less. To keep up, local fishermen started using purse seine nets (huge nets pulled up and pinched closed like a purse). But dolphins and sharks and turtles and all kinds of cute water animals got caught in those nets (called “bycatch").

In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act passed—protecting whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, walruses, manatees, dugongs, sea otters, and polar bears. The legislation was humane, but also crippled commercial tuna fishing in America.

Now, there’s not a single commercial tuna cannery in the U.S. The tuna fishing industry is dominated by Asian and Latin American fleets, where regulations are lax, to say the least. The industry overseas has reportedly gotten pretty shady Some international boats are irresponsibly loose about bycatch. The coastal regions of small nations are being depleted, many fleets still use purse-seine nets and "fish aggregating devices" (FADS), and some boat employees are subjected to near-slave conditions.

And that feelgood "dolphin-safe" label on cans? Forbes eplains in this article that doesn't mean dolphins are safe.

It got so bad that in 2015, Greenpeace launched a campaign to raise awareness—evaluating 20 well-known brands on their sourcing policies, whether they avoid shark finning and destructive fishing practices, whether they can trace their products back to the sea, and how they treat human rights of their workers. That first year, only 40 percent of the brands passed their test. Yikes.

But things are changing. This year 55 percent of the brands passed the test. Only four brands, however, got the highest “green rating”: Wild Planet, American Tuna, Whole Foods, and Ocean Naturals. Whole Foods is promising to only sell sustainable canned tuna by 2018. Among the brands that failed their test: Target, Costco, Chicken of the Sea, Trader Joe’s, Bumble Bee, and Walmart. The lowest-rated on Greenpeace's test was Starkist—the largest tuna brand in the U.S., and probably what most Americans have in their cupboard at home.

So, yeah, buying canned tuna without pausing to consider sustainability or labor rights violations is not terribly cool. It’s even more important considering that the U.S. is still the largest market for canned tuna in the world. We dig our tuna melts.

That’s why San Diego’s sustainable fishing operation, Catalina Offshore Products, decided to get back into the old San Diego tradition. Local fishermen are catching bigeye and yellowfin tuna between here and Hawaii, bringing it back to Catalina’s warehouse, where they filet it by hand, freeze it, send it to Oregon to be canned by hand, and sell it locally in a can emblazoned with the mug of one of the city’s most beloved and cantankerous fishmongers, Tommy Gomes.

Catalina’s Choice Solid-Packed Tuna costs more ($5 compared to $1 for a commercial brand), because it’s sustainable, line-caught, and not abusing humans. And the taste is remarkable. It comes out of the can in big, solid, tuna steaks. It’s so unlike the watery, fibrous crap of our 1970s youth that it’s almost not the same food.

I asked Gomes why they’re doing it, why it’s worth it, and what the tuna capital was like back in those days.

Why canned tuna?

At its height, San Diego had over 300 fishing boats. It was the largest fishing fleet in the entire world. This city was run by Navy and the tuna boats. They all lived in Little Italy and went to St. Agnes. My dad went to Point Loma high. They all fished on their dad’s boats. When you walked into Mister A’s, they knew you were a tuna fisherman by your gold chain. You didn’t need reservations. Mr. Pernicano made sure the boats got their season tickets to the Chargers. A lot of the grandkids grew up and didn’t want to take over the family business. We’re bringing it back one can at a time.

The bar at Portuguese Hall was tuna central, right?

There were billions of dollars with contracts being signed at the corner table. The construction contract for Qualcomm was signed there. The Castagnola family helped finance WD-40 back in the day. Fishing roots run pretty deep pretty far and pretty wide.

Why is it worth it?

You compare one of the major brands to Catalina Choice or American Tuna, and tell me which one you want to eat. Do you want to eat something that looks good and tastes good or do you want to eat cat food? It’s a better pack. It’s better tuna. It’s not brined in salt and kept frozen. It comes to Catalina fresh, we loin it out, wrap it in food wrap, freeze it, ship it, and then it’s cut by hand and canned by hand. We use San Diego boats and catch with a long line. It’s offloaded in San Diego. Cut here by us. Inspected by us. No additives. You’re keeping the money at home in San Diego. It’s also got a little bit of history and tradition. With the vast influx of foreign seafood, that’s important. It supports local fishermen.

And the taste?

Our tuna’s pretty good. It comes out on a solid chunk. It’s not just squishy like a Slurpee.

How does canned tuna help sustainability?

We had the boats coming in with so much bigeye tuna. That shit doesn’t get better with age. I’ve never had a 120-day dry aged tuna steak. The minute that fish hits the deck the clock is ticking. You make that conscious decision to remain sustainable—you’ve got to sell all the fish. Canning helps you do that.

You can buy Catalina Choice at Bay Park Fish Co., Surf Side DeliJensen’s in Point Loma, Seaside Market, Wrench and Rodent, and Catalina Offshore.

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