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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tuna bountiful for New Year's

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Hensley Lau, quality control/quality assurance manager at TJ Kraft, inventories 'ahi at the company's refrigerated warehouse in Kalihi Kai. The prized big-eye tuna species is in good supply.

Photos by JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Oki Lau slices sashimi at the TJ Kraft Ltd. warehouse in Kalihi Kai. The best tuna for sashimi has high fat content and is carefully cut.

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'Ahi fillets, from trays on racks at right, are carefully sliced into sashimi and packaged at TJ Kraft for distribution to Island retailers.

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New crushed ice is shoveled onto whole tuna at the TJ Kraft refrigerated warehouse to keep them at optimum temperature: about 32 degrees.

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For Lee Matsumoto, it's $15. Donna Chin maxes out at $20. Grant Fukuoka will go $25, under the right circumstances.

That's the maximum each of these Islanders say they'll pay per pound for fresh 'ahi big-eye tuna.

"Really, you end up paying whatever you have to, because there's no New Year's without sashimi. Goes good with champagne," said Fukuoka with a laugh.

It's likely each of the three will find sashimi-grade tuna in their price range.

"If it continues like it's been, you'll have good supply and the whole gamut of prices," said United Fishing Agency auction manager Brooks Takenaka.

That is, unless the weather offshore takes a turn for the worse just as Hawai'i's longline fishing fleet pulls in the last of its 2006 catch.

Takenaka did say, however, that in the weeks before Christmas, he hadn't seen as much of the highly prized fattier tuna, so folks like Fukuoka, who are willing to pay top dollar for toro (the fatty belly cut), may be disappointed.

Asked about the supply and price outlook, Tom Kraft, of TJ Kraft Ltd., the company that prepares the 'ahi platters and trays for Costco, Tamura's stores and Times supermarkets, joked that predicting tuna prices this time of year was his annual chance to be wrong. But then he went out on a limb again: "The fish are close in, the fishermen are handling the fish very well. I don't expect prices to deviate from the norm too much. They may go up slightly because there's so much demand in the last few days" before New Year's.

PRICES MAY BE RISING

In a check of stores late last week, sashimi-grade 'ahi was selling for just less than $16 (for regular 'ahi block at Safeway Beretania) to $20.99 for fatty toro (at Marukai), depending on the grade and cut, with boutique fish shops and Asian food stores generally stocking the best grades and charging the highest prices. Marukai was selling bluefin tuna the gold standard at an eye-popping $40.99 a pound.

One indicator that prices may be trending upward: Safeway Beretania yesterday was selling regular 'ahi block for $18.99 per pound, up nearly 20 percent compared with Thursday's price.

Even with that increase, however, Takenaka yesterday said it still was too early to say whether pricing will head higher this week.

There's no way to say for sure how much tuna there will be for Sunday and Monday parties, of what kind or at what price.

Hawai'i's big-eye tuna catch has increased steadily in the past five years, due in part to a ban on the swordfish fishery from 2001 to 2004 that caused many longliners to switch to tuna, said Paul Dalzell, senior scientist for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. According to figures from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service, before 2000, the Hawai'i big-eye tuna catch averaged 5.5 million pounds a year. Today, it's closer to 10 million pounds.

Fishermen report catching an average of 10,500 fish a month, with the largest number landed during the holiday season, Dalzell said.

TIPS FOR TASTIEST TUNA

If you'll be shopping for 'ahi, some things to know:

  • The ideal temperature for storing 'ahi is about 32 degrees, and the worst thing for the fish is fluctuations in temperature, Kraft said. To keep 'ahi cool, put a cooler of ice in the car and make all your other purchases before buying the fish. Then go straight home.

  • Moisture is injurious to the shelf life and quality of 'ahi. Before storing the cut fish, remove it from the original packaging and gently blot away moisture (don't wipe). Wrap well in waxed paper or plastic wrap.

  • Store 'ahi in the coolest spot in the refrigerator, low and toward the rear. Or place wrapped 'ahi in a bowl of ice in the refrigerator and change the ice frequently.

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that fish that has been previously frozen or treated with carbon monoxide or "tasteless smoke" must be so labeled. "Tasteless smoke" is a food-safe gas used to keep 'ahi (and many meats) from turning brown from oxidation; 'ahi is particularly prone to the color change because it's high in iron and fat. The gas does not lengthen the shelf life of the fish. According to an FDA bulletin, however, some processors have been caught using the gas to intensify the color of fish, making it appear to be better quality than it is. If fish seems unnaturally bright red, or if you object to treated fish, keep shopping.

    Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.


    Correction: TJ Kraft prepares 'ahi platters for Tamura's stores, not for Tanioka's Seafoods and Catering. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information. Also, Paul Dalzell is senior scientist for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. A previous version of this story misidentified the agency.