One of the three company ships which work the Straits of Gibraltar. JC M
JC Mackintosh, Malaga's pioneer in sustainable bluefin tuna fishing

JC Mackintosh, Malaga's pioneer in sustainable bluefin tuna fishing

Six years ago he adopted the Japanese fishing method of Ike Jime whereby each fish is line-caught to minimise suffering for improved flavour and texture. His is the only fishery in Spain to achieve the prestigious MSC certification in sustainability

Susana Zamora


Friday, 20 October 2023, 16:23


Juan Carlos Mackintosh, 61, had the sense to leave the building business at the threshold of the biggest real estate crisis that Spain has suffered this millennium. He left bricks and mortar for sport fishing. Today his company is the only one in the country to hold the prestigious MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certificate for sustainable bluefin tuna fishing. The family-run company, which this businessman from Malaga has headed in Tarifa for six years, has achieved this recognition by being true to itself and turning a deaf ear to the many critics from a sector sometimes anchored in poorly understood traditions. They land their catch by hand, using single-line hooks and only to order - no over-fishing. They don't skimp on taking care to ensure the fish do not suffer, thus guaranteeing the highest product quality.

Although his father is from Seville and his mother is from Jaén, he owes the Scottish origins of his surname to his great-grandfather, John Mackintosh, who made his fortune selling coal in Gibraltar to British warships during the First World War and today one of its main squares bears his name.

Juan Carlos Mackintosh.
Juan Carlos Mackintosh. JC M

"His daughter from his second marriage donated her inheritance to the Rock, hence recognition in the form of a plaza and study scholarships with his name," he told SUR.

Mackintosh shelved his property business in December 2007 when he sold Bora Bora restaurant in San Pedro Alcántara, a town with family connections. His father had acquired a farm there and then, in the '60s, spearheaded the first urbanisation in Marbella. The family were pioneers then and, more recently it would seem, also a little visionary as they foresaw the looming economic crisis. This was his chance to dedicate himself to his childhood passion.

"When we sold the restaurant, we were given the opportunity to buy a small boat to go fishing for tuna as a business. We did it as a small investment, but little by little we got more into that world and saw that there was scope to do things differently. For us there were no hard and fast rules so we decided to do everything that others were not", he said.

In October 2016 he headed to Japan. "I needed to know why the Japanese valued tuna so highly, how they caught tuna of such high quality and why they paid so much for it when our customers at the fish market would only buy it cheaply."

He travelled to Oma, a small fishing village located on a cape of the same name, to learn about the fishing methods and gear used by the locals to catch the much-valued bluefin tuna. There he discovered the 'greenstick' technique, a system that guarantees sustainable fishing by using a long mast high enough to lift the line and lures, yet pliable and robust enough to bend to incredible limits while also cushioning the tuna in case it thrashed about. This fishing method aims to avoid any suffering by the fish as it is captured. It has revolutionised the sector in this area of Cadiz with a long tuna-fishing tradition.

This Japanese slaughtering technique, known as Ike Jime, seeks to keep all the organoleptic properties of the tuna intact (colour, odour, flavour, texture).

"That meant making changes to each boat, to our way of fishing and also retraining the crew... At first everyone was reluctant, but my son Daniel and I were set on following that path. It took us almost a year to renovate the boats and find the gear we needed," he said. Once they began to apply Ike Jime, the criticism poured in along with the mockery: "they treated us like the village idiots: why did we cushion the tuna in wraps or what stupidity it was to bleed them...". "We still don't care what people say. We know that doing things differently is how you succeed," he said. To prove this, he turns to the data: in six years, their turnover has gone from 350,000 euros to three million. Current sales go to Spain and abroad (25% stays in Tarifa, 10% to the rest of Andalucía, 25% across Spain and the rest overseas).

In this Tarifa fishery they have renamed the entire Ike Jime process the 'Five Mackintosh steps'. "We decided to call it that to differentiate ourselves from the rest, because some claim they fish using that method, but they really don't follow all of its steps," he stated. The process begins when a tuna fish rises up to the boat with buoyancy aids after taking the baited hook. There the fish receive a small shock from a stun device to prevent them struggling.

This way prevents any lactic acid being released into the fish as it flaps around while suffocating on the deck of the boat as this would cause the flavour to become metallic and the flesh to darken. Completely opposite to the 'battle' of the traditional almadraba method, where man fights with the netted fish to the end.

"Tuna caught almadraba-style is very fatty, with a strong flavour and a very powerful smell. For the Japanese it is a treat, like the fat of pata negra ham to us, but it is not so great for someone who is new to tasting it. Our tuna is expensive because it follows high standards in quality but, unlike a few years ago, people now know how to appreciate it," said the businessman.

Next step is complete exsanguination, where they hose down and clean the fish with salt water to prevent rapid decomposition. The process proceeds to gutting and, finally, cooling in iced water. Since 2017 the whole process can be experienced by anyone interested on board one of their three boats. The family were pioneers in turning the art of Ike Jime fishing into a tourist experience, adding another string to their business bow.

The latest venture by the founder of JC Mackintosh, headstrong and faithful to his groundbreaking spirit, has been to install a freezing system, used for years in Japan, but unknown in Europe, called proton magnetic freezing. When the food is defrosted it still maintains all its freshness, "unlike when the ice particles that are created within the cell walls of the food during the process of conventional freezing break the cells so that, when the product is defrosted, this cell breakage expels much of the moisture from the product in the form of water. When this happens, the flavour and texture of the frozen product are irreversibly damaged," he concluded.

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