“Albacore tuna has a mild flavor that's delicious served raw or seared briefly on the outside so that it's still rare on the inside.” — Tom Douglas, Seattle-based chef, has been cooking up Pacific Northwest cuisine since 1984
I first met Nancy Fitzpatrick at Hatfield during a media summit in July — AKA journalists and scientists confabbing. It was designed to bring writers andreporters to scientists working on a variety of issues affecting the Central Oregon Coast, and beyond.
What better way to look deep at an individual who ends up on the Pacific Coast than to see not only what it’s like to head up two of the four seafood commissions in Oregon — The Salmon and the Albacore commissions — but to also explore her roots bringing her here in the first place?
Nancy speaks fondly of fishers and their families. Her husband, Mike, who has been a commercial fisherman for years. While they worked as teachers in Tigard (1974-79), Mike got hooked when he met a fisherman working out of Pacific City. Nancy and Mike bought a commercial dory boat; he taught elementary school during the fall-winter-spring and fished during summers.
Nancy’s work with the two commissions — separate entities — is similar to the administrative duties of the other two commissions — Trawling and Crab.
Teacher, Secretary, Fish Agent
Anyone who has lived on the coast understands the ups and downs of all fishing industries and those challenges managing the targeted fish and crustaceans. For Nancy, her introduction to the vagaries of Oregon’s salmon fishers came at her from an asymmetrical direction — she was a public-school teacher in the Beaverton School District before she and her husband moved to the house on Devils Lake they’ve occupied (and where they raised their two daughter) in since 1988.
He formative years (she was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1951) may have been rooted in our southern neighbor, but Nancy has a much more dynamic pedigree than just being a “California girl who moved to Oregon.”
We are talking about a foremother on her mother’s side — the Chiltons — who is reported to have been the first female to set foot on Plymouth. Nancy points out that many of her relatives on the maternal side are buried in the oldest Boston cemetery, on the grounds of King’s Chapel.
While Mike Fitzpatrick and Nancy Sanesi (we’ll get into her dad’s Italian heritage in part two) met in 1970 at UC-Riverside, it seemed as if their destinies were meant to intersect — he was finishing a psychology and education degree after a hitch in the US Army and she was working on a German/education major. Before they married, Nancy and Mike would vacation in Oregon, at her grandfather’s beach house in the Nelscott area of Lincoln City.
Getting under people’s narrative beyond — “what do you do for a living, what’s your job, what kind of hobbies do you have?” — helps young and old readers see that our lives end up beginning at Point A (and really, begin with our great-great-great-and-beyond-grandparents’ narratives), then evolve from Points B, C, and D and in some cases, all the way to Point X.
We’ll get to some of those way stations, but for now, the reality is salmon is no longer king in Oregon, as the species is highly managed for many reasons, from dammed tributaries to the fact that many fish come from major rivers with colluding pollution issues, hundreds of miles from where Oregon’s fishers land them. The salmon fishers of Oregon have a limited catch, which Nancy would like to stay in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy.
Two Fish, Two Commissions, One Person
The Oregon Salmon Commission started in 1985, out of Newport. There was a manager and fulltime secretary. Nancy became the secretary in 1989. In 1991, there was what many called a “disaster” in the salmon industry, with the season closed completely because of the constraints on fisheries needing stocks to go up various rivers.
The Newport office shut down, and Nancy ended up as a quarter-time, independent contractor working out of her Otis home. She took on a variety of different paid jobs, including being an aide at DeLake Elementary school, working with the County Extension office with 4-H students, and the Salmon Commission.
She’s now the executive director of two separate industry-supported entities — the Salmon Commission and Albacore Commission (established in 1999). Her role is to support the fishers and processors and distributors of both species with the tools of each commission funded through respective industry dues. Research, communication, education and promotion are her marching orders.
“I love this job because I love talking to the public. I do everything, from opening the mail to going to Washington DC to talk with congressional people.”
She has been able to walk the talk by attending seafood expos and shows, from the one in Portland to those in Boston, Texas and New Orleans. These sometimes-gargantuan events have hundreds of groups representing myriad marine food products with thousands of people attending to sample products and make deals to purchase products.
Tuna Cook-off, Newport Style
One dynamic local event Nancy helped organize through the Albacore Commission was the Great American Albacore Cookoff at the docks in Newport — an event that ran for five years straight beginning in 2011.
In 2016, more than 500 people purchased $15 tickets to get samples of albacore tuna in various recipes from a host of chefs. She said $10,000 worth of tuna was purchased to get this event up and running, with prize money for winning cooks. The Cookoff was also a benefit for the Food Bank.
“The consumer is so afraid to buy a chinook or albacore tuna. They are even more leery of cooking sea food at home.” Those professional and amateur cooks demonstrated the variability of the tuna as a nutritious and tasty main course or appetizer. “We want to get that tuna into the consumer’s mouth. That’s all it takes to get them hooked.”
The fisher queen: part II
“Fishermen are resilient. They always say a tomorrow will be a better day.” — Nancy Fitzpatrick, Oregon Salmon and Albacore Commissions
“It is sobering to think that salmon could take the worst nature could throw at them for millions of years–from floods to volcanic eruptions–but that little more than a century of exposure to the side effects of Western civilization could drive them to the edge of extinction.” — King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon by David R. Montgomery
From the time she was a toddler, the young Nancy Fitzpatrick had vacationed every summer to this area of the country. Diamond Lake, Union Creek, Rogue River and Depoe Bay are places in her heart and memory from childhood.
She tells me that her grandfather was Speaker of the House in Oregon in the 1927. Her mother has the entire family tree, going back before the Mayflower.
The roots on her father’s side of the family trace back to Italy; Florence, to be specific. Nancy tells me about her father, Nelson Sanesi, who when living in LA in 1944 was enticed to the U of O to learn/relearn Italian in order to work with Italian POWs at Hermiston.
Her father sold insurance while her mother was a stay-at-home mom with four children in the San Fernando Valley. Nancy laughs when I ask her how she ended up majoring in German as part of her college education program. It turns out that there was a better high school to attend, outside their district, but the only way a student could get permission to transfer was petitioning a transfer based on the home school not having the subject a student wanted to pursue.
Education Paradigm Shift
Nancy and Mike had one child in 1979 in Tigard, and another daughter in 1982 in when they went back to California for four years in order for Mike to help his family run a painting company in Irvine.
They’ve been in the Lincoln City area for 31 years. One daughter is now the COO for the Humane Society in Maui and the other is a veterinarian working in Yakima.
We talk about education, K12, and both of us lament that the system is broken, dysfunctional, doesn’t address what young people need to learn, nor how they should learn — hands on, outside the classroom, with real life and community problems to face and solve, and with trades, the arts and much more cultural and regional instruction.
The Fitzpatricks pulled their younger daughter out of Taft Elementary school, after Nancy saw the classroom going wild, with children walking on the desks. She was homeschooling her, and soon one of the teachers at Taft asked Nancy to take on her 6th grade son. Soon, Nancy was working half the day for the Oregon Salmon Commission and the other half teaching six kids ranging from sixth to eighth grades.
Now she works with both agencies and helps commissioners attend the Pacific Fishing Management Council, which meets five times a year.
Salmon — Tough Times Returning Home
The entire Pacific Northwest salmon “issue” is interlocked with science, fishing, tribes, industry, development, pollution, dams, environmentalists, recreationists and of course consumers. These salmon have specific rivers of origin, and as many readers might know this species is anadromous — dividing their lives between freshwater and the ocean.
Born in freshwater, salmon go downstream, grow up as smolts in estuaries, mature at sea and then return to their natal streams to spawn a new generation. There are five species of Pacific salmon: chinook, chum, sockeye, coho and pink.
Throughout the Pacific Coast, we have literally dozens of major rivers from where the fish originate — Columbia, Sacramento, Rogue, Klamath and dozens more major rivers and hundreds of tributaries. While Nancy touts the term “wild caught,” we both agree that most all the salmon consumers purchase from the fishers she represents is hatchery bred.
In 2005, Senator Ron Widen met at OSU and talked to all stakeholders about the fate of salmon stocks. There was federal and state disaster money for fishermen and their families. With some of that relief money, fishermen got electronic GPS machines to record locations of every salmon caught. Also, a fin snip and a few scales bagged and location records started being sent to scientists in order to determine where the fish was caught, the age of the fish and where the fish originated, i.e. DNA markers that point to their natal river.
It was supposed to be a five-to-10-year study period, with more than 100,000 samples gathered. Thirteen years later, 75,000 samples coast-wide have been collected.
“We don’t have quite as a good range of sampling to call it solid science,” she said. Science demands a shorter timeframe and more samples to determine with more accuracy the health of each stock. Around 50 to 60 percent of chinook caught in Oregon waters originate in home waters of the Sacramento River.
Many Oregon Coast readers have heard about salmon predation by seals, sea lions, cormorants and orcas. Many restaurateurs are telling Nancy’s salmon distributors that they don’t want salmon on the menu because orcas are struggling to feed themselves. The issue is complicated because it’s Washington’s resident orcas catching salmon, not those orcas on our coast.
It Takes a Village to Support Fishers and their Families
We talk about the greying of the fleet, that is, how more and more young people are not taking up commercial fishing while old timers are still at the helm. We talk about how there are about 325 Oregon boats and with a total of around 500 on the decks making some sort of living from Oregon salmon fishing. Each boat represents a family and local businesses supported by local fishers.
The multiplier effect is huge for our seafood fishermen and fisherwomen — in the thousands who get a slice of the salmon pie, so to speak. Please, salmon is iconic here in the Pacific Northwest. The Atlantic salmon stocks were demolished almost 70 years ago because of dams, pollution, over-fishing.
Then there is Oregon’s albacore tuna fishery, which Nancy says represents roughly 10 million pounds of fish per year.
Nancy’s big push is to have that albacore stay as a domestic product; right now, 50 percent of the Oregon-caught tuna is sold and eaten in the US, which she is proud to say is a figure that is slowly increasing.
“The 10 million pounds is an average I use in generalities to talk about consumption. In 2018, we landed 5.8 million pounds. In 2017, 4.7 million pounds. The actual 10- year average is 8.5 million pounds. The 10-year average used to be 10 million, but the last five years have pulled the average down.”
With a 50 percent cut-away/throwaway average, that’s 2.9 million pounds of albacore in 2018.
Think of Oregon with four million citizens, so that’s less than a pound of wild caught, healthy albacore tuna per consumer every year supporting the state’s fishers and their families and local economies.
The Art of Crafting Tuna by Hand — from hook to fork
Issues like keeping our products here in the US add to the local “multiplier effect” of money circulating in coastal communities, not overseas businesses. For instance, a micro-canner in Coos Bay will “hand loin” the tuna, hand pack it fresh and add nothing but sea salt. The albacore is cooked once with all the natural juices locked in.
Nancy says the commercial (highly industrialized) caught and processed stuff is cooked twice, with oil and water added since all the natural juices from the tuna are cooked off the first time in massive crematorium style baking.
The market for canned Oregon albacore is traded mostly on-line, through the fishermen themselves. Flat rate mailing, USPS, for 24 cans at 7.75 ounces each, is $13.95. At $5.50 a can, that’s about $120 gross.
We both talk about bad food in our schools, and both adults and parents not knowing what healthy food is. Nancy, through the Salmon and Albacore Commissions, wrote a grant for Farm to School funding, and landed $15,000 to bring seafood to the classes; in this case, salmon, tuna, groundfish, crab and pink shrimp were part of the Seaside Heights Elementary School Farm to School education component. Nancy developed curriculum for these “seafood activities” helping teachers and home schoolers integrate seafood into their lesson and activity plans.
Behind the scenes of these snazzy events like the Great American Albacore Cook-off are hardworking fishers using lines and poles to bring in this fish. Families working to keep that fishing boat going. A small crew to help manage the albacore hitting lures. The people who cut loins and those who either can or bring to market the fresh meat.
Nancy sees her own salmon-and-albacore run — heading up both commissions — coming to an end in 2022, when she will be 70-plus years of age. Her work is a one-woman show doing the job of three people. Trying to find someone to fill her fishing boots is a tall order.
Nancy wants the fishermen and fisherwomen in Oregon to have respect, to make a sustainable living, and to be celebrated as part of our coastal culture, history.
One parent of a Seaside Heights’ fifth grader sent her a note that illustrates how Nancy’s work pays off in one way or another:
“Thanks again for sharing some local fish with us and sending home a delicious meal with all the fixin’s. We enjoyed making it together, and Isaac was so proud. I believe that teaching a kid to cook is a vital part of growing up independent and healthy and it is so fantastic that the school is supporting this while also supporting our local community and fishermen. Thanks so much!!”
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”