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Everything You Need to Know About Skipjack Tuna

This little tuna is the chicken of the sea

Everything You Need to Know About Skipjack Tuna

Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) caught off Miami by writer’s friend Dr. David Carroll, late November, 2021. 

Tuna noodle casserole is a regular feature on our weekly (Weakley?) menu. Cans and cans of the stuff line our pantry shelves. Pouches, too—tuna being a portable snack in vogue. My family loves it. Good old Charlie Tuna.

Most of this “tunafish,” I enjoy reminding folks, is skipjack, a relatively small member of the tuna clan usually encountered far offshore. They average about 10 or 12 pounds. They spawn early in life, grow quickly, and are considered abundant and not undergoing overfishing.

Fresh skipjack is a special treat we Floridians encounter from time to time on the blue water. In this article I will tell you everything you need to know to provide this delicious, healthy tuna to your family. No can-opener required.

Let’s start by getting some names straight.

Skipjack is considered a “light” tuna, but not a “white” tuna. The white tuna you buy in cans is albacore. Albacore, by the way, is most definitely not the same thing as false albacore. False albacore would be another name for little tunny—which Floridians frequently call bonito or bonita. Ironically, there is an Atlantic bonito which makes an occasional pass along the Florida coastline. The Atlantic bonito, more familiar to anglers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, is about as white a tuna as you’ll find! It is extremely mild.

skipjack tuna population
Hard to predict, they may gravitate toward upwellings, usually far offshore near the surface of the waters at least 400 feet deep.

The fact that some anglers call skipjack “oceanic bonito” makes things even more confusing, as I’ll explain.

Skipjack meat is pretty close to blackfin and yellowfin tuna. I’ve taste-tested all three, on the same plate. They’re all great. For any kind of casserole, salad or grill technique involving any level of spice—you simply will not be able to tell them apart. Prepared very rare or sashimi, you’ll likely find yellowfin just a little bit lighter, fattier, more flavorful. But you won’t be able to tell blackfin from skipjack. Add a chunk of bonito to the mix (little tunny) and you’ll definitely notice: The darker the meat, the more you’ll register those metallic notes—iron, copper, the ones that seem to hang in your sinus cavity.


With all tunas, bleeding them immediately after boating (slash the gills) and later filleting away the interior “bloodline,” much improves the flavor. Any tuna can be ruined by poor handling or over-cooking.

No matter how you slice it, bonito—again, our bonito—not the Atlantic bonito, is a hard sell at the dinner table. I’ve bled them, iced them, blast-seared them on nuclear-hot grills with various crusts of seasoning. Bonito makes for a good conversation starter among friends, but let’s just say it puts the horse in hors d’oeuvres.

fishing for skipjack
Flashy jig shown above is a good bet for casting.

The skipjack, light and flavorful, is delicious. But among Florida anglers, it is little understood.

Skipjacks are somewhat hard to predict. There aren’t any tournament circuits for them. No tee shirts. No one puts skipjack stickers on their trucks. Along the Florida coastline, typically late summer through winter is when you might spy them. Usually, they’ll be far offshore, out in very deep, Gulf Stream water, at least 400 feet deep. Sometimes they’ll gravitate toward a deepwater upwelling, as is commonly present around the “humps” offshore of the Florida Keys. They are there because the nutrients pushed up by the currents create a food chain. But often they’ll be just roaming about.

skipjack tuna habitat
Navionics detail of Marathon West Hump, rising from 800 to 560 feet. Spots like this are frequented by skipjack, among many other species.

Skipjack are fast-swimming, fast-growing schooling fishes which feed heavily on the surface. The commotion they make when going after tiny baitfish is significant. The water often foams by the acre, and you’ll likely spot the tuna bodies flying out of the water here and there. One tell-tale that differentiates this activity from that of other common pelagics: Skipjack move fast, really fast.

They’re also notoriously selective feeders. Size is usually the limiting factor. Very small lures (2-4 inches) are most likely to get bit, and for what it’s worth, the greenblue-purple color spectrum seems most productive. Recently, fishing off Miami, I watched my buddy catch one on the tiniest green squid skirt you can buy, pulled over a ¼-ounce egg sinker and rigged in front of a 3/0 hook, with a few spacer beads. That is a very good rig, easily reproduced. I think David had about 40-pound-test monofilament leader, which is all you need and then some. Skipjacks aren’t toothy—but they do have good eyesight and may shy away from wire or heavy mono.

how to fish for skipjack tuna
Small feathers or skirts, such as octopus skirt rigs are good for trolling.

If you can anticipate the movement of the feeding schools, and get your boat well in advance of their path, casting lures can be productive and extremely entertaining. The Gulfstream Flash Minnow in ½-ounce—a huge favorite among Spanish mackerel fishermen--is deadly on skipjacks. Again, green and blue.

According to NOAA Fisheries, skipjack are found in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate waters of all oceans. In the western Atlantic, skipjack is found from Massachusetts to Brazil, including in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

That said, skipjack aren’t particularly abundant in U.S. waters. Again according to NOAA, in 2020 U.S. fishermen accounted for less than one percent of the total western Atlantic skipjack landings—and that combined figure is itself pretty small. By far, most of the skipjack are caught in the Pacific.

canned tuna with lowest mercury levels
Selenium is among many beneficial nutrients in skipjack.

Interestingly, skipjack rank very favorably on an emerging scale relating to the consumption of fish: the Health Benefit Value, or HBV. That’s because skipjack is very high in selenium, which public health officials are now eyeing closely as a possible counter to mercury. Short story: Many fish which are high in mercury are also high in selenium, a good thing.

A bit of backstory. Methylmercury, which is toxic to brain and nerve tissues and especially harmful to fetuses and infants, is present in the tissues of many kinds of fish. It’s an organic form of the element mercury, having worked its way up the food chain, “bioaccumulating” in larger, older predators.


Mercury toxicity via seafood consumption is an issue of public health concern dating back at least to the 1950s, when thousands of villagers in a coastal town in Japan, Minamata Bay, were sickened or killed after eating fish contaminated with extremely high levels of mercury attributed to runoff from a local chemical plant.

Today, anywhere in the world, background levels of methylmercury in seafoods are attributable to a variety of sources—some natural, some resulting from atmospheric deposition of residual mercury downwind of waste incinerators.

best canned tuna 2022
How most of the world takes its skipjack. We prefer ours fresh!

The Florida Department of Health tests fish around our coasts and publishes consumption advice. According to FDOH, methylmercury levels aren’t particularly high for skipjack. The FDOH ranks skipjack (a.k.a. “canned light tuna”) as acceptable for consumption by everyone—including young children and women of child-bearing age. The guidance, from FDOH, for young children and women of child-bearing age is eat up to 12 ounces (two meals) of skipjack per week. Curiously, “white” tuna, albacore, has a higher concentration of mercury—no more than 6 ounces per week are recommended. King mackerel, swordfish and tilefish are on FDOH “Do Not Eat” list for the same group. (For other consumers, FDOH has in recent years watered down the recommendations to “For most people, the risk of eating fish exposed to mercury is not a health concern.” Crusty old salts continue to enjoy smoked kingfish.)

Why are women of child-bearing age singled out in such advisories? That’s because methylmercury is easily passed to a developing fetus in utero, disrupting the development of nerve and brain cells with permanent consequences.

But a curious thing: Women of child-bearing age are also being told to eat more fish, and in some cases precisely because moderated fish consumption has been shown to actually improve the outlook for developing babies!

On that score, skipjack might be one of the best menu items.

best tuna to eat
Women of child-bearing age are being advised to eat more fish, and skipjack might be one of the best.

Researchers at the University of North Dakota, Dr. Nicholas Ralston and Dr. Laura Raymond, have published peer-reviewed papers describing the process by which dietary selenium offsets the risks associated with methylmercury. Ralston has a consumer-facing synopsis you can read at www.sagegreennrg.com/enhancingnutrition.

In summary, methylmercury toxicity, researchers indicate, is now thought to be related to the depletion of selenium. Methylmercury has a sneaky way of binding with selenium. Selenium is an element used by the body in processes which clean and restore cells; remove selenium and cells may wither or perish. This equation is particularly relevant to certain nerve cells, damage to which results in the kinds of neurological deficits (tremors, brain damage, impaired growth, etc.) seen at Minamata Bay and a few other case studies. Thus, Minamata disease.




But: If the fish itself is loaded with selenium (single serving of skipjack: 140 percent of the FDA daily recommended selenium), then it may come with a built-in protective effect. The ratio of selenium to methylmercury can be graphed to describe the overall “Health Benefit Value.” And other health benefits of fish are well-documented: rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and E, and many important minerals.

A big question Florida anglers and seafood consumers should be asking: Will Florida health officials recalibrate fish consumption advisories to include the potential benefits gained by selenium content?

Florida Sportsman has reached out to the Florida Dept of Health for comment, but so far no word.

skipjack tuna habitat
Skipjacks are sometimes attracted to floating objects such as this bamboo trunk. An open-ocean species, only rarely are they caught within sight of shore.

A private laboratory in Deerfield Beach, Florida, was actually used by researchers to determine selenium levels of many fish samples from all around the world, including skipjack. Might the same lab be recruited to test our king mackerel? Our cobia? Our bluefish?

So far, crickets from Florida public health officials.

Meantime, I fish as often as I can, but it’s hard for me to keep up with the demand for tuna at my house. Spanish mackerel? Sheepshead? Grunts? All you can eat. When I get tuna-lucky, I’m always relieved that I (or my host) have a current HMS (Highly Migratory Species) vessel permit. You need to have the $26 HMS vessel permit in order to keep skipjack and many other tunas. See hmspermits.noaa.gov.

The permit, in case it’s unfamiliar to you, is part of a fisheries effort- and data-collection program curated by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The conservation of many kinds of far-ranging ocean fish relies on international cooperation. Swordfish, yellowfin tuna, mako shark and billfish are some of them.

Florida’s home-grown tuna, blackfin, doesn’t fall under any international management, and so there’s no special permit required, other than a state fishing license. Blackfin limits are implemented in Florida by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

There aren’t any size or bag limits for skipjack.

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Many anglers have no idea what the fish even are. Some simply call them bonito, and throw them back.

An artifact of snobbery on the part of the big-game fishing elite, skipjack are dismissed as inferior to yellowfin or bluefin. The only thing inferior, really, is their size. The scientific literature suggests a max weight of 70 pounds; the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) recorded a 45-pound, 4-ounce catch off Baja, Mexico, in 1996. Along the Florida coast, a 20-pounder is a large one. These figures of course, are indeed inferior in the tuna pantheon. Bluefins routinely top 800 pounds, and Key West delivered a 240-pound yellowfin tuna to the Florida state record books in 2002.

However: Hook a 10- or 20-pound skipjack on light trolling tackle, and you will have your hands full. They are incredibly strong and make long, fast runs.

The truth is, everybody loves skipjack tuna. They just don’t know it!

SKIPJACK AND SUSTAINABILITY

how to identify skipjack tuna
A global species, skipjack seem to be holding up under fishing pressure (so far).

The skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) is by and large considered a “smart” seafood choice, not only because it’s healthy for you, but also because the species spawns early (within the first year), spawns often (as often as once a day!), and produces large numbers of eggs. That translates to sustainability, for the most part.

However, globally, there is growing concern about bycatch associated with certain industrial methods used to catch skipjack. One trouble spot is “floating object purse seining,” where commercial vessels surround a fish aggregating device and scoop up not only skipjack, but many of the other fishes which commonly gather in such spots.

Thanks to the attention directed toward such practices by Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation groups, producers of canned tuna are beginning to promote “pole-caught” skipjack. Florida anglers, of course, enjoy their own pole-caught skipjack!

SKIPJACK SALAD

fresh tuna salad recipe
Tunafish salad made by the writer using fillets from the skipjack shown on the lead page of this article.

This recipe is best with skipjack or blackfin tuna, but it’s also an ace-in-the-hole if you’d like to try the darker-meat bonito, a.k.a. little tunny or false albacore.

Ingredient amounts are approximate – I whip mine up at the end of a long day of fishing, when I’m half-blind with hunger and fatigue.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. skinless tuna fillets, blood line removed
  • 1⁄3 cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup chopped celery
  • ¼ cup Grillo’s dill pickles finely chopped
  • 2-3 tablespoons chopped onion (red, yellow, as you like; little goes a long way)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (bonus for freshly squeezed from tree in your yard)
  • Pinch of salt and pepper, to taste
  • Dijon mustard or Worcester sauce, couple squirts

Directions

This one’s easy. Boil the tuna fillets, then set aside in colander to drain and cool. Pick out whatever bloodline remains. In a big glass bowl, mash up the tuna with a fork and toss everything in there with it. Stir, cover and refrigerate. If you’re storing overnight, easy on the onion. BTW: The Grillo’s pickles will have bits of dill in there. Make sure some of that gets into the salad.  FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2022

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