Big Fish Maldives tapping into magic of tuna’s “eutectic point”

Maldividan tuna boat captains and Big Fish Maldives Managing Director Ahmed Latheef (right).

Yellowfin tuna’s eutectic point, the temperature at which all cellular activity ceases, is negative 60 degrees Celsius.

It’s a phrase and a number Big Fish Maldives Managing Director Ahmed Latheef wants European tuna buyers to keep in mind in making their purchasing decisions. At that ultra-low temperature, natural decomposition does not occur and the texture, flavor, and color of the tuna are preserved, he said.

“We developed the process over three years, working with a Spanish company, a German company, and a Japanese company, as well as a consulting firm. And we think we’ve found a way to deliver the highest-quality tuna to buyers in a way that is also more efficient and cost-effective,” Latheef told SeafoodSource at the 2023 Seafood Expo Global, where his company was touting its new process.

The rate of freezing determines the quality of the thawed product; the faster, the better. The time taken to reach negative 10 degrees Celsius core temperature is key, as this is the phase in which most water molecules crystallize and expand within the cells of the fish. When freezing occurs slowly, large ice crystals form within the cells, damaging their walls and membranes. When large ice crystals break the cell walls, moisture escapes, leading to a dry, tough, and less flavorful fish,” the company’s brochure explained.

Besides creating a better product for end-consumers, the process will also result in better earnings for the company and its tuna fishers, according to Big Fish Maldives.

“During certain times of the year, the Maldives experiences a high volume of yellowfin tuna catches, which makes it impossible to export all the fish by air in fresh chilled form. Consequently, a significant portion of the total catches during this time is frozen to a core temperature of negative 20 degrees Celsius, which is shipped as lower-value non-sashimi grade products. This forces processors to steeply decrease the price paid to fishers when fishing is at its peak,” it said. “Our new state-of-the-art ultra-low-temperature facility will help address this long-standing problem by allowing us to pay higher prices for the fish during periods of high-volume landings as well.”

The company, founded in Malé, Maldives, in 2017, became the country’s top yellowfin exporter in December 2022. It is a producer and exporter of sashimi-grade fresh and frozen tuna products to the E.U., U.S., and Asia.

Because yellowfin and skipjack tuna school around the Maldives in large numbers between October and April, the country’s tuna companies, which also include Mifco and Ensis, are able to land an abundance of fresh tuna. But the glut and the difficulty of shipping that much product off the remote island nation results in capacity issues and lower prices, according to Latheef.

“During our peak fishing periods, our typical catch will jump from 100 tons to 300 tons, but our freight customers aren't able to take all that product. So we have all this really good sashimi-quality tuna that we have to freeze and reduce the price on,” he said. “When we heard about this ultra-low temperature freezing process, we realized this could be a solution for us.”

After learning more about it, Big Fish Maldives decided to dedicate an entire facility to the process rather than commit further to on-board freezing methods.

“Tuna starts to undergo rigor mortis a few hours after death, which can last up to 48 hours. This process causes the muscle fibers to stiffen due to chemical reactions that make them contract and fuse together. Onboard frozen tuna is usually frozen while rigor mortis is in progress, meaning that the effects of rigor mortis may be present in some loins when thawed, resulting in lower quality and shorter shelf-life,” the company said in its brochure. “We fillet fresh tuna after rigor mortis has fully resolved in ideal conditions. This results in a more stable quality and longer shelf-life when thawed.”

Big Fish Maldives has spent USD 5 million (EUR 4.6 million) to increase capacity and equip its facility on Himmafushi atoll with the ultra-low temperature freezers, which has brought its annual production capacity to 6,000 metric tons. Latheef said the product is aimed at the food service sector in the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Europe gets a lot of the B-grade onboard frozen ultra-low-temperature tuna, while Japan gets most of the A-grade. Europe gets no consistency, and in frozen form, it’s really hard to tell what the grade is, especially with onboard systems that are freezing tuna while it’s still undergoing rigor mortis,” Latheef said. “Our customers are really top-end, Michelin-star-type restaurants, and on the retail side, Coop, Migros, Harrods, generally serving high-end clientele. We think they’ll appreciate the consistently higher quality and the flexibility we offer. There is no other country in the world that can supply yellowfin like we do because our boats go out for just a few days then come back and sell directly to us – there are no middlemen. And then everything is air-freight and because of the simplicity of our logistics, we can do same-day add-ons to orders.”

Latheef said the sustainability, ethical practices, and environmental responsibility of the tuna fishery in the Maldives is also a major selling point.

“It all starts with our relationship with our fishers. We have made it a point of emphasis to treat them in a better way, paying them on time, making an effort to ensure steady year-round employment. It's a very small fleet, just barely 300 vessels that can handle yellowfin tuna through handline fishing methods, which produce no bycatch,” he said, adding that fishers working for Big Fish Maldives receive between 60 and 80 percent of the export value of their catch. 

Big Catch Maldives is depending on word of mouth about the quality of its products to spread in Europe.

“We have such an established customer base, and we trust each other. They are doing our marketing for us, which we would like to be primarily focused on differentiating on our product, with a sustainability theme,” Latheef said. “We have great relationships with distributors and we don't encroach on their turf. Some of our competitors actually did that and it was a mistake.”

Next up for Big Fish Maldives is ...

Photo by Cliff White/SeafoodSource

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