SEATTLE -- When the tuna boat St. Jude motored out of Anacortes, Wash., in November for fishing grounds 5,000 miles away in the South Pacific, few people outside of microbiology labs had ever heard the word "coronavirus."
By the time the 95-foot vessel docked in Seattle this month, the microbe had shaken the entire world and turned the seafood business upside down.
"Baboom!" said owner and captain Joe Malley, who returned from the six-month voyage to find the primary market for his high-quality albacore had vanished. "Who could have anticipated this?"
Nearly three-quarters of the St. Jude's catch usually winds up in restaurants, including several of Seattle's most acclaimed dining destinations. Malley and his wife, Joyce, are close friends with some of the city's top chefs. But with dining in eliminated during the coronavirus lockdowns, the Malleys now find themselves with a shortage of customers and a bounty of fish: Thirty-five tons in a cold-storage facility and another 48 tons stashed in the hold of their boat at minus 30 degrees.
So the Bellevue couple decided to do something they haven't done in nearly 20 years: Sell direct to the public at the dock.
Fishermen from Maine to Massachusetts to California have been doing the same, trying to salvage what they can from a season of unprecedented upheaval that is impacting the entire industry. The massive economic stimulus package passed by Congress includes $300 million for fishing operations, seafood processors and charter boats, and industry representatives are calling for an additional $1.5 billion in aid.
For those who know and revere the St. Jude brand -- and for some who had never heard of it -- the prospect of sushi-grade, whole tuna at $3 a pound was the perfect excuse to get out of the house on a drizzly Saturday and make the trek to Fishermen's Terminal in Ballard. The Malleys plan to sell again over Memorial Day weekend – May 22 to 24, starting each day at 10 a.m.
"This is a lot more fun than the supermarket," said Vinh Bui, who drove from Renton with his wife, Thanh. The couple, who wore matching plaid masks, went home with a 16-pounder, some fillets and plans for sashimi and grilled tuna.
It's also a pretty good deal, with the price below the wholesale rate for whole fish. On Friday, the first day of sales, one woman bought 30 big tuna, said first mate Paul Raikeve, as he bagged up yet another of the shiny, frozen-stiff albacore.
Anna and Travis Ankrom waited in line -- at a safe distance from others -- to buy 15 pounds of fillets, also called loins, selling for $12 a pound. The couple are devotees of St. Jude Tuna, which they often purchase at the Ballard or University District farmers markets.
They intend to can Saturday's haul, which Anna estimated would be enough for about 50 jars, each seasoned with olive oil, salt and a clove or two of garlic.
"It's just like canning anything else," she said. "You just have to be sure your jars are sterile."
Wearing a blue face mask and jeans, Joe Malley greeted customers on the dock and offered impromptu cooking tips. He advises cutting the loins into steaks an inch and a quarter thick while still partly frozen, then seasoning and searing them on the grill, leaving the middle raw.
"It's a lot easier to overcook than it is to undercook," he cautioned.
Malley and his three-man crew fish with hooked lines up to 100 feet long, trolling lures near the surface where young albacore feed. Each fish is hauled in separately by hand, immediately bled and flash-frozen, which is the key to high quality, he explained.
The handling makes a difference, according to James Beard award-winning chef Maria Hines, of Tilth. "The flesh is always meaty and not beaten up," she wrote in a text. "It always tastes clean, not fishy."
On the boat's most recent trip, most of the fishing was done a thousand miles east of New Zealand. The crew weathered three typhoons, and only came ashore twice after setting off from American Samoa. In early February, they offloaded 70 tons of fish in New Zealand and barely heard a whisper about a frightening new virus. But by early April, when they arrived at Tahiti, the pandemic was raging. They were only allowed to linger in the harbor half a day and couldn't leave the boat. So they fueled up and headed for Seattle -- a journey that took 26 days.
Malley is hoping the moribund restaurant market will revive as eateries slowly begin to reopen. In the meantime, some of the tuna can be canned and the rest kept in cold storage. At the minus 10 degrees common in commercial facilities, the fish will stay good for up to two years – though that might not be economically viable.
"Every month you get another bill for the cold storage."
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