ASTORIA - The trouble with tuna is the name. For most Americans the word "tuna" evokes images of a cheap food, hidden in salads and casseroles, that comes in the same-sized can as cat food. Add to that the specter of tuna fishers accidentally netting dolphins and you have an image problem.
None of this is true about albacore tuna, except the can part. It's a sleek, torpedo-shaped fish that rivals salmon in taste when barbecued. The white meat is high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. And because albacore are hooked, not netted, you don't need to look for the "dolphin safe" label.
Still, albacore tuna is floundering.
One day in August, there were 10 boats at the docks at Astoria full of albacore, but their operators couldn't find a buyer, according to Mike Morrissey, director of the Oregon State University Seafood Laboratory there.
In Newport, it was the same story. Tuna boat operators were sitting at the docks trying to sell their catch to tourists because the canneries weren't buying any more.
It has been a bad year for West Coast albacore fishers, said Gil Sylvia, an economist at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Prices are down 20 to 30 percent compared to last year. There are all sorts of theories as to why, from monetary problems in Asia to simple supply and demand. With a big catch, there are more albacore available than people want to buy.
Albacore need a good marketing plan to increase demand, contends Sylvia. Right now, 90 percent of the fish caught are canned. OSU's Morrissey envisions other potential markets.
"Everybody who tries it seems to love albacore barbecued or cooked as filet and loins - there is even albacore lox," he said. "There are all kinds of products we can make out of albacore." Developing products is one thing, but creating a market for those products is another.
A February international albacore meeting at the OSU-operated Duncan Law Consumer Seafood Center in Astoria will try to put the pieces of the albacore market puzzle together. The conference is organized and sponsored by Oregon Sea Grant, a marine education outreach program based at OSU.
"We're expecting more than 100 people representing management, fisheries biology, processing and handling and marketing," Morrissey said.
One thing in the fish's favor: According to Sylvia, much of the promotional ground work for an expansion of albacore sales was done by the West Coast Fisheries Development Foundation 15 years ago. including four-color brochures, recipes, life-sized posters of albacore and nutritional information cards. Adjusted for inflation, the effort represents nearly a $500,000 promotion package.
In addition to this preliminary promotional work, OSU research projects have some promising information on issues that have caused problems for albacore tuna sellers.
The fish are harvested worldwide, from the warm waters of the southern Pacific to the colder north Pacific. When caught, an albacore's temperature is higher than that of most other commercially harvested fish because it swims fast and fights hard. Some of the West Coast boats that fish for albacore are not equipped to freeze the fish and simply ice them down until they reach shore. This may take 5-7 days, because albacore are generally caught far out in international waters.
This has been considered a problem because albacore belong to a "scombroid" species of fish, such as mackerel, that are susceptible to the formation of histamine. The odorless, tasteless toxin can make people sick, explained Haejung An, a researcher at the OSU Seafoods Laboratory.
Once histamine is produced in a fish, no amount of cooking or freezing can remove it. The Food and Drug Administration allows a maximum histamine level of 5 milligrams per 100 grams of fish.
"Though this species (albacore) looked like trouble, to our surprise there was almost no way to get albacore to produce unsafe histamine levels," An said. "Even after abuse at room temperature to the point the fish was decomposed far beyond what anyone would want to eat, histamine levels remain within safety levels." This gives albacore a built-in safety barrier, the researcher added.
These fish can take so much abuse without producing unacceptable levels of histamine, An speculates albacore may produce some sort of anti-histamine forming substance. Further research to isolate this substance may help food scientists find a way to protect other types of fish from histamine contamination.
Another concern about albacore involves the way they have been handled at sea when first caught, and the lengthy delay before they reach shore, noted Ken Hilderbrand, an extension seafood processing specialist at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center.
"Spiking the head to kill the fish quickly and bleeding them both appear to increase quality," Hilderbrand said. "So does putting the fish in slush ice or refrigerated sea water as quickly as possible."
The marketing question then goes back to supply and demand, he says. Is there a demand for higher quality albacore in places other than cans - such as the barbecue grill? Fishermen want the answer, because taking extra steps to ensure higher quality raises the cost of their operations.
Marketing albacore is more complex than marketing a land-based agricultural product where you can have more control, Sylvia pointed out. There are no limits on catch and there is no management plan because albacore cross so many management areas and range far out into international waters.
Markets want consistency and quality, but the species itself is variable, Sylvia adds. Albacore can range from 10 to 60 pounds and the oil content within a single catch can vary by 10 percent from fish to fish.
In late August, Sylvia and Hilderbrand began discussing a feasibility study of building a producer-owned tuna cannery in Newport. There is also a proposal in the works to apply for emergency funds from the Oregon Department of Economic Development. If approved, albacore producers would make a matching fund contribution. The money would be used for special albacore promotions throughout Oregon, but this would only be for one year.
This year has been bad, but is there a future for albacore tuna in producer-owned cans and as steaks and fillets on home and restaurant plates?
That's the multi-million dollar question, and February's International Tuna Conference in Astoria should provide some of the answers, Morrissey said.