ST. JUDE is the patron saint of lost causes. It wasn’t the name Joyce and Joe Malley would have chosen for the spanking-new 95-foot fishing vessel they bought in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1990, but it’s considered bad luck to change a boat’s name. In retrospect, a little heavenly protection might have helped. Buying the St. Jude took all they had, and then some.
The story turned out well in the end for this seagoing couple. Fishing Vessel St. Jude’s albacore tuna loins are on the menu at Seattle restaurants like Tilth, Terra Plata, Matt’s in the Market and Queen City. “In order to make a really good dish, you have to source ingredients that have great flavor,” says chef Maria Hines of Tilth. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Joe’s tuna because he puts so much care and attention into his product. He searches out schools of tuna that have a very high fat content, which is why his tuna is always so melt-in-your-mouth delicious. He also bleeds the fish quickly, so they have a super-clean flavor.”
Many area grocery stores stock St. Jude’s canned albacore (about $9 per 6-ounce can). Recent back-to-back “Good Food Awards” for their Mediterranean tuna packed in Spanish olive oil and their organic jalapeno-spiked tuna (one of several flavored versions) attest to the product’s excellence. The “Tarantella” line uses only luxurious tuna belly. Forget chicken of the sea: St. Jude’s Tarantella packed in Regalis White Truffle Oil (the rare truffle oil not made with synthetic flavoring) is the ocean’s answer to Wagyu. At $8.50 for a 3.5-ounce can, it’s an affordable splurge.
A lot of environmental concerns swirl around tuna. The Malleys care about sustainability. Their tuna is troll-caught, using lures dragged on the surface to selectively catch young, fatty albacore one-by-one. About 5 percent of albacore are troll-caught, according to Joe. Trolling selects for young albacore, 3 to 5 years old, averaging about 15 pounds. “They feed low in the food chain: anchovies, squid and krill. The result is low mercury levels, making them much healthier to consume. It is a much-targeted type of fishing. Bycatch is virtually nil. Any bycatch only makes it as far as our barbecue,” he says.
Joe became a commercial fisherman in 1978, trolling for salmon aboard the 38-foot Tania Dee. Back in those days, the Seattle schooner fleet had its own informal arrangement, he says: “They all agreed the fish could only take so much pressure, so they would all fish for seven days, then take 10 days in town, then fish for seven days. The community of fishermen were really a community bound by realms of the ocean rather than politics.”
Then the federal government instituted quotas. “In a spectacular year, we might have caught 500,000 king salmon. To be reduced to a third of that level and never see another good year again hurt,” says Joe. “Fishermen live for the good years. That’s when you pay your mortgage off, or maybe talk about going to Thailand for a vacation.”
There were other fish in the sea. After he and Joyce met, they fished off Alaska from the 48-foot Kelly Marie for halibut, black cod and Pacific cod, as well as salmon. “I was having a blast trolling and dating this fisherman that everyone looked up to,” says Joyce. “Then he bought the stupid, huge boat that I’ll never forgive him for.” She winks. He laughs. “You would not believe how bad things went,” he says, shaking his head.
The dream was to fish for tuna in the South Pacific. But it took them months to outfit the St. Jude with freezers and then get her from a southern shipyard through the Panama Canal and back up the Pacific Coast to Astoria, Oregon. The harrowing journey involved barefoot boat pilots in the Louisiana bayou; Bible-bearing missionaries and gun-toting shopkeepers in Panama; menacing pirates off the coast of Mexico; and the kindness of the Coast Guard, which gave them safe harbor in Monterey Bay at no charge until they could repair their broken midshaft. Three years later, they finally made their first 80-day voyage to the South Pacific. It took them the better part of a decade to get entirely out of the financial hole.
By 1998, the St. Jude was solely chasing albacore. The zone is defined by sea-surface temperature, Joe says. You are likely to find albacore in water that’s between 58 and 68 degrees, so you fish the South Pacific in winter, the West Pacific during May and June, and the Central and Eastern Pacific from June through October. For more than a dozen years Joyce and Joe operated the vessel themselves. Today, the St. Jude resides in Westport, run by a hired captain and crew. The Malleys, who have a son in college and a daughter in high school, run the business from their Bellevue home, managing the marketing and distribution.
All the tuna is flash-frozen at sea and kept at 35 degrees below zero. The canned fish is processed in Bellingham as carefully as it’s caught. Conventional tuna is steamed before canning, which dissipates the omega-3 oils and nutrients, then cooked again after the can is sealed. St. Jude puts raw fillets in the can, adds salt and spices, then seals the cans and cooks the fish in its own juices. Nothing inherent in the tuna is lost. Their warehouse is their garage. They make their own deliveries and label cans at the dining-room table. “My children help when they can, or when we insist and they owe us money,” says Joyce.
Look for Joyce and Joe at farmers markets in Edmonds, Redmond and Bellevue. At the Ballard Farmers Market, they serve seared tuna dusted with Tom Douglas’ Spicy Tokyo Rub on a Tall Grass Bakery baguette with local greens. T-Doug himself showed up one Sunday and snagged a slider, along with several cans of tuna. You should do the same.