We’d been texting all summer.
Keper Connell, a fisherman from Rye with 20 years of experience on the water, wanted me to come see a fish.
When the day finally arrived, I met Connell at a fish processing facility in Seabrook, with the nuclear plant in the background. It was nine in the morning, but Connell’s day had started hours earlier. He was wearing a yellow T-shirt with the words: ‘I shuck on the first date.’
“I left today at, like, 12 midnight,” he said, his face hidden behind mirrored sunglasses and a beard. “And then it's about an hour and a half ride out, and it was beautiful last night because that big fat moon is waning.”
Connell is a one-man operation aboard his boat, The Figment. When conditions allow, he cruises into the Gulf of Maine in search of bluefin tuna, a torpedo-shaped fish that can reach more than 1,000 pounds. These bluefin migrate each summer from the Gulf of Mexico, enticed by a buffet of smaller fish.
“The same reason that these fish are here is the same reason that the whales are here,” he says. “There's a lot of herring and what we call forage: so mackerel, and there's some sand eels there and there's some squid…all the sort of fundamentals of the Gulf of Maine.”
Connell has been a lobsterman and led charter fishing for trophy hunters, but these days, he’s all in on the bluefin. When he’s out on his boat, he sleeps for an hour at a time, waking up to check on his 200-pound monofilament lines.
"Sometimes . . . they make a mistake"
Federal regulators closely monitor the taking of bluefins, dictating the season and catch limits But the giants aren’t endangered in these waters, and they’re still prized for their meat and the fight they put up.
“They are supreme, and they dictate everything in the water column, but they're so aggressive that sometimes they just can't help themselves and they make a mistake,” he says.
Once hooked, the battle can take an hour, sometimes stretching to a few hours. Connell, alone in deep waters, works under a spotlight attached to The Figment. The day I met him, he’d first felt the tuna hit his line at 3 a.m. As the fish tires, he says, the first glimpse comes into view.
“All of a sudden you see the fish, and it's this green glow from the water,” he says. Then more colors appear as the fish comes closer to the boat. Once it's alongside, Connell throws a harpoon into the fish: backup in case the monofilament breaks. Then, it's a wrap around the tailfin, and the tuna gets winched over the side of the boat.
Last night’s catch was close to 8 feet long, weighing in at around 400 pounds. This season, he will catch one to two dozen bluefun; each gets celebrated with a solo toast.
“It's usually a Canadian beer because the boat's Canadian. You know, a little bit for the fish, a little bit for myself,” he says.
“And then when I'm dressing the fish, one of the rituals I have is that you take a bite of the heart so that that fish is inside you. And you thank them and then toss the heart over.”
Tapping the tinning tradition
Rather than sell his bluefin to a wholesaler, where cuts may end up in a fishmonger’s display case, or as toro on a sushi menu, Connell is doing something that nobody else in the U.S. is apparently doing.
His fish is put on ice and sent to Oregon, where it will be packed into tin cans with a high end olive oil and some salt. (There are no canneries on the East Coast where an independent fisherman can bring his catch, he says.)
Tinned bluefin--and lots of other tinned seafoods--are a celebrated staple in parts of Europe and Japan. But Connell knows a lot of Americans have a different view of food in a can.
“The American perception is that anything in tins is bunker food or it's D-level or it's deserving of our pets,” he says. Connell describes his canned tuna as “the other end of the spectrum.”
He sells his bluefin, as well as tinned mackerel and smoked eel, under the brand name Gulf of Maine Conservas. The six-ounce tins are available through his website, other online retailers, as well as in specialty food shops around the region, retailing from $20 to $25. Some restaurants are also now offering his tins on menus.
Onboard the Figment, we shared a tin straight out of the can with a plastic fork. But you can eat it how you’d like: Just don’t mask the flavors with mayonnaise, he pleads.
“One of my favorites is just a piece of sourdough bread in the pan with the oil. Let that toast, put the tuna right on top of that sourdough,” he says. “And make sure you're sitting down.”
Tinned fish is having a moment in culinary circles, and a few food influencers have found Connell’s products on Instagram. With fresh blood splattered on the deck of the boat, sipping out of a coffee mug that likely hadn’t been washed since last summer, Connell doesn’t look like the influencer type.
“I'm more of a ‘suggester,’ yeah,” he says. “ ‘Hey, why don't you do that?’ I sound like my dad.”
Connell’s father was in the restaurant business; that’s where he gets a lot of his ambition and creativity from, he says.
But perspective is what’s needed most on a boat in the ocean by yourself in the middle of the night. He’s not in charge. The water isn’t his.
“You go four days without a fish, you start to pull your hair out, remodel the boat, upend everything. Bloody knuckles kind of stuff,” he says. “There's nothing that I could do that would cataclysmically change the way a tuna behaves, you know? So it's really just time.”
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