Catching fish with a line and pole doesn’t seem like a thing of the past. But, in the commercial fishing industry, it is a rare practice.
A few weeks back I started reading about American Tuna, the company that provides Maple with wild albacore tuna. There was something honest and genuine that drew me in but on their website I found a video of them line and pole fishing that kind of floored me. Rather than sweeping tuna up in big nets, American Tuna grabs their catch with rods–by line and pole fishing—with remarkable skill. I’d never seen surface fishing at the rate, speed, and ease that they were able to pull fish, freshly caught, out of the water. I needed to know more, so I made an appointment to visit them in San Diego, California, where they’re based.
I sat down for a couple of hours over a meal with Joel Cardoza, and Natalie and Jack Webster, partial owners of American Tuna, to learn about the history of pole and line fishing. We grabbed lunch at The Fish Market, located on Tuna Lane, a stone’s throw from where their boats are docked. I didn’t expect the entire family’s presence, but the three of them dedicating time to their story and craft was representative of how the company operates. When they started American Tuna and were deciding how to get their mission out there, Natalie said one thing to Jack: “Tell the story.” She knew the value that their practice held, and that once people had information about the way their fish were being caught, they would also care. The families that built the fishing industry of the west coast did have a story to tell. Natalie’s instincts were right.
The company is actually comprised of six families of multi-generational fishermen. They pride themselves on only purchasing albacore caught by the American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA).This means that they catch one albacore at a time, skimming the surface for the fish that will be healthiest and lowest in mercury. (The alternatives in the industry are long line fishing and trawling, both of which bring in bycatch—unintentionally caught fish—and disrupt the sea’s ecosystem.) AFFA was also the first fishery in the world to obtain MSC certification (Marine Stewardship Council). This means they have complied with three key principles: sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impact, and effective management of the fishery.
The immediate benefit in all of this is that American Tuna is bringing business back to fishermen directly, and the fishermen are bringing albacore directly to their customers. The tuna that you’ll find in each can is packed in the Pacific Northwest just days before it arrives at its destination. This means that at restaurants, like Maple, you’re getting tuna that is around three to five days fresh from the sea. Which is pretty great. On top of that, they’ve developed an intricate coding system on each can that makes every fish traceable to the vessel that caught it, the date it was caught, and the facility where it was canned. This system is what allows them to be MSC certified, guaranteeing compliance from the pole to the table.
As our plates of pan-roasted fish disappeared, Jack began to tell me about his early days as a captain, going around the world, and how pole and line fishing is an intricate sport. When he spoke of the kind of fisherman it requires, he said it was not just about muscle and build, but a delicate balance of hand-eye coordination, and a true oneness with the sea. Jack is a barrel-chested, six-foot-something. Almost like a Paul Bunyan of the sea, albeit slightly shorter. And although his build supports his ability catch fish, what comes across is his graceful relationship to the practice. While talking, his face lights up with enthusiasm, his voice carrying a reverence to the huge body of water just on the other side of our table. The sea, ultimately, has the final say when it comes to a fisherman’s success or failure. Despite their passion, fishing is a business and a not-always-kind one at that. The up-front costs are too expensive to not deliver full tanks of fish at the end of their 15 to 20 days out at sea. Coming back empty handed is not an option on these boats.
There are skills, however, that sustain American Tuna, seasoned knowledge that ensures a healthy catch. I inquired about the albacore migrating up towards the Pacific Northwest, where they are ultimately canned, Joel having mentioned earlier that there was great reason behind why they caught so much up there. Jack described to me the process of “upwelling,” where the winds pull the nutrient rich sea floor to the surface, attracting the fish to a feeding frenzy of plankton and krill. He said that when this happens, you can spot dark green patches in the sea, and the fishermen know exactly where to go for their catch. I recalled all of the times in my life when I had seen these patches in the ocean. My eyes widened at making sense of it all as Jack remarked: “That’s just life. That’s just some crazy stuff going on.”
The way that Jack, Natalie, and Joel talk about fishing makes it feel like an art form full of rich stories and timeless lessons. Their process is attentive, community oriented, and transparent. And they, generous and eager to share. At the end of our meal, Joel showed me down to the dock, where I saw “Mille G,” “Ana Maria,” and “Her Grace,” a few of the American Tuna boats. As we walked from row to row, I pictured Jack, a young, salty pioneer, fishing off of the netted platforms attached to each ship. I like to think of him and the other fishermen, sailing up the west coast, splendidly pulling in one tuna at a time.