CHARLESTON — Tuna are plentiful, prices are down, and the weather is nice in Charleston.
'It's popping," said Jodi LeDoux, from the Fisherman's Wharf, a fresh fish market on D Dock.
'Last Saturday, we unloaded 2,257 pounds at noon and sold out at 3:45."
If you don't call ahead to order tuna, finding it can be hit or miss, LeDoux said.
Of course, three fresh fish markets serve the Charleston Boat Basin area, and at least four fishing boats sell tuna from the dock. Independent tuna loiners will often sit at a cleaning station and loin whole tuna for a small fee.
Sports fishermen also are doing well. Weather has been fine, and the tuna are swimming close to shore, said J.D. Evanow, owner of the Charleston Crab Shack.
Price for whole tuna Wednesday was generally $2.50 a pound. Tuna, on average, weigh about 15 pounds.
'Bandon might have all the tourists, but we're still the fishing village," said Jack Kirk, who sells the tuna he catches from his boat on I Dock.
The commercial tuna season should last through October for larger vessels, which can stay out to sea for weeks, said Patrick Leonardini, a fisherman aboard the Judy S.
Smaller commercial boats and sports fishing probably will fizzle by mid-September, especially after the tuna move further out to sea.
Tuna 'salad days"
A hopping tuna season means much more than fresh tuna for sale on the dock.
Many tons of tuna move through Charleston in the summer and only a small portion is sold directly to the public. Most is bought up by canneries to be frozen, and some loads are exported.
Last year, Japanese canneries refilled their freezers with Oregon tuna after the tsunami and drove up the price here, Leonardini said. This year, the Japanese fleet is somewhat repaired so the demand -- and price -- have dropped back down.
Fishermen currently receive about $1.20 per pound from local fish-processing plants.
Fresh, frozen, brined
The boats generally know where they will sell their tuna before they head out. Different fish plants -- and different countries -- have specific tuna-handling rules.
There are three basic methods for storing commercially caught tuna, Leonardini said. The most common is to fill a boat's cooler with ice to keep the fish fresh, and haul them to shore within a few days. These are the fish sold from the dock, to the fish markets, and to the canneries.
Other boats freeze the fish at sea, either with a cold air blast or a briner. Both methods produces sushi grade tuna, Leonardini said.
His boat, the Judy S., freezes tuna at sea with a briner, then exports it to Spain. A briner works by pouring salt-laden water that is kept at sub-zero temperatures over the fish, freezing them almost instantly. The salt keeps the water from freezing.
'I watched a fish drop in there once, and its eyes were frozen within four seconds," Leonardini said.
Playing a jig
The Judy S. uses jigs to fish, which are attached to fishing lines and attract tuna to bite. Other fishermen use live bait to entice tuna to the surface around the boat. Then they manually hook tuna one at a time with a bamboo pole and fling them onto the boat.
Either way works, Leonardini said. Early in the season, tuna are in a feeding frenzy, trying to build up fat. At that point, they are more likely to bite a jig. Later in the season, when the tuna are fat and happy, jigs are less successful, and more bait comes out.
That also means the tuna are big and tasty this time of year, the fishermen say.