COMMENTS ON BLUEFIN ABUNDANCE

bluefin-tuna-mamReel-Time readers… I received the below response from a lifelong tuna fisherman. I thought it was particularly relevant to the CITES discussion taking place here and on other forums. The sender wishes to remain anonymous, but it’s certainly worth a read.

“The plain fact is that the population is not healthy.  A healthy population supports a spring recreational fishery off Bimini, when boats from Florida and the Bahamas sight-fish for giants streaming up out of the Gulf and up along the edge of the Bahamas Bank. A healthy population puts the gear of Long Island’s shark anglers in danger, as giants pick up mackerel and other baits drifted in chum slicks during late June and take anglers in center consoles on a Nantucket sleigh ride. A healthy population sees school fish swarm from Cape May to Cape Cod, not just here and there, but throughout that range, throughout the summer. A healthy population supports events such as the United States Atlantic Tuna Tournament in places such as Galilee, Rhode Island in late summer, with big fish taken not at Nomans, or the Mud Hole or Coxe’s Ledge, but within sight of shore at Rosie’s ledge and Nebraska Shoal. A healthy population means that when you least expect it, chumming bluefish on Barnegat Ridge, a pod of giants will crash the party and take off with one of your hooked fish.  A healthy population means that charter boats out of Provincetown will have a good chance of scoring multi-giant days throughout the summer. A healthy population has sees the Bay of Fundy and other Canadian waters alive with fish throughout the year, at times so far north that anglers fish amid the remains of icebergs. A healthy population sees giants in Butterfish Hole in the fall, and in the Shinnecock Tuna Hole, and sometimes on the Patchogue Grounds. From October through November, it encourages boats to line up the entire length of the western Mud Hole, and sees anglers on those boats hook up on a fairly regular basis. A healthy population means that, in any given year, most and probably all of those things will happen with predictable regularity.

There won’t be a good run off fish off Chatham, or Cape Ann or the Maine coast, and little more than a spattering somewhere else. There will be fish, and an abundance of fish, throughout their range, appearing off New York and Rhode Island and Massachusetts and Maine and Prince Edward Island at the same time. I can say that because I lived in a time when the fish were abundant. I saw some of what I describe when I was too young to hold onto a bluefin, and I read about other things in the angling press. But except for Bimini, Canada and northern New England, I experienced the rest of it for myself, back in the ’70s, when the decline had already started but the health of the population was still pretty fair.

I fell in love with this fish back then, and until a couple of years ago, when my conscience got the better of me, fished for and caught them every season. And knowing what we lost, I get annoyed when I hear people like (name deleted) essentially maintain that since the fish may not technically be endangered–although we can even debate that point, depending on how we draw the population line trending into the future–we should settle for “badly depleted” and call it ‘good enough”, because somebody can still peel a dollar or two off the bluefin’s hide.

In the days when the bluefin was abundant, there was no market, except maybe ten cents a pound for pet food if you found a buyer in the right mood, and maybe that was why you could regularly see the fish blow through the surface of Cape Cod Bay, and stand on the deck of the Sea Squirrel or one of the other cod boats out of Pt. Judith and watch giants turn the water white somewhere between the breakwall and Coxe’s.

So long as dollars drive the management decision, rather than hard science and the biological needs of the tuna, the species will always teeter at the edge.”

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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8 comments on “COMMENTS ON BLUEFIN ABUNDANCE
  1. avatar Doug Jowett says:

    Very well said. For to many it’s all about the money. When are we going to manage the resources (all resources) first so we have something to manage the social problems with? Seems like we always fish and hunt things right to edge of disaster and then it takes longer to correct the problems. I’ve always maintained you can’t buy back a season for any amount of money. Delaying tough regulations only makes things worse.

  2. avatar Bill Hubbard says:

    I fished tuna commercially and recreationally from the late 1950s to 1970. We fished between the Race at Provincetown to Brunswick.

    Yes, there were a lot of tuna in that area during that time but, nothing like you describe have described John. The biggest concentrations of fish were offshore – Middle Bank(Stellwagen), Jeffries Ledge and off Boon Island, Maine.

    The biggest difference then was that there were many fewer boats. Cape Ann Tuna Club, which I belonged to in the 1960s had about 100 members and a local turnament that usually attracted about 35-40 boats.

    Most of the fish caught were 300 to 600 lbs. with a smattering of giants, over 700 lbs. and an occasional school of footballs-under 60 lbs. Most of the fish caught by both rec. and com. boats were sold at prices between 12 and 30 cents/pound. Remember, this was before the advant of Japanese buyers paying outrageous prices for Bluefin.

    My best day with keg-ling and harpoon was 5 fish landed and sold in 1961. For a couple years thereafter I fished both com. and rec. but recreationally only after 1965. My best day on Rod and Reel was three fish boated and released.

    I remember large schools and many fish but, nothing like you describe in your article and, nothing like what was seen on Stellwagen and east of Chatham during the 1998 and 1999 season.

  3. avatar Bill Hubbard says:

    Last sentence in above reply should have referred to the 2008 and 2009 season in the last sentence; not 1998 and 1999. Sorry for correction

  4. Bill… I didn’t “describe it.” The comments are from a guy who has been tuna fishing for the last 30 years. Sure, your experiences may have been different, and we can argue about you observations vs. his, but the point is this: The science on the sorry state of bluefin stocks is pretty much indisputable. A precipitous decline over the last three decades has been well documented. If it were managed under Magnuson, it would have been shut down a long time ago. Of course, folks who can still make money selling bluefin will argue that there are more bluefin around than ever, when they are threatened with having the demand greatly reduced by a CITES listing. Frankly, I’m far more inclined to believe the science. Are you really arguing that bluefin stocks are as healthy now as they were in “1950 to 1970”???

  5. avatar Bill Hubbard says:

    Capt. John wrote, Quote: Are you really arguing that bluefin stocks are as healthy now as they were in “1950 to 1970”??? Quote

    No, of course not. My point was that having fished commercially and recreationally in that timeframe and since -over 50 years – I believe the “anonamous” statements about the abundance of fish then are significantly exagerated. It’s very easy to overestimate when one is doing it anonamously…….

    Of course ABFT stocks are sorely reduced – primarilly by overfishing in the eastern Atlantic and Med. However, our western atlantic stocks are being fished for in a very conservative manner – as they should be.

    I think that the measures passed by ICCAT should be tried for the coming year. If overfishing continues; then I would not argue about shutting it down even through CITES.
    But, give it a chance to work.

    My greatest concern is the number of fish being killed by light tackle fishing on this side of the pond. Light tackle anglers taking over an hour to release a dead fish or, breaking off mid-fight leaving a couple hundred yards of line to be trailed by that fish till it dies.

    You could say I don’t have a dog in this fight because my age and retirement severely restricts my ability to seek BFT – only two trips in 2009; but that’s not so. I have kids and grandchildren and I do want them to have as much opportunity as I have had.

  6. avatar Charles A. Witek, III says:

    Bill–

    Haven’t spoken to you for a while. Hope that you’re doing well.

    I’ve been following this discussion, and have do disagree with you a bit. If you take a close read of the initial comment, it doesn’t say that there were a lot more bluefin years ago in the same places that they are being seen today, but rather that they appeared in a lot more places, simultaneously, than they do today. And that’s a tough point to dispute.

    Sure, you can have some intense local abundance on Stellwagon or elsewhere on the coast today–but that will be one of the few places in the Northeast where fish are being caught at that time. When you want to get an idea as to how abundant a species is, you don’t look at where they are, you look at where they’re not–and should be.

    As the first post mentions, the USATT–a venerable tournament that once drew boats from New Jersey, New York and New England–had to leave Rhode Island waters because there weren’t enough fish there any more to support the event. It kept moving further north into New Endland until it finally died from a lack of fish. There are still giants taken off Rhode Island and Monauk in the fall, but the numbers are nothing like they were thirty years ago. The same is true for the late season off New Jersey. The first post’s description of the boats that used to line the Mud Hole off New Jersey is also accurate. But it doesn’t happen any more, because the fish aren’t there to support it. Bluefin do come through, but the numbers of big fish just aren’t there.

    I learned to tuna fish off Rhode Island, having first strapped on a 16/0 Senator there, so I know first-hand how that fishery has declined. I used to fish the Mud Hole, and no what we lost there. I know that the school bluefin that I could usually troll up from late June into September off Long island have largely disappeared–outside of some scattered fish, the only thing we had this season was one group of fish hanging south of the Chicken Canyon in late summer, and then some action closer in south of Shinnecock/Moriches in the fall. It was intense if you were there, but a shadow of what I knew years ago.

    Sometimes our perceptions blur, so before chiming in on the site, I did a little bit of research to see what I could find.

    This is what good recreational bluefin fishing in Nova Scotia looked like: http://www.antiquefishingreels.com/photos/fishing/big/MVC-052L.JPG , when a single angler could land 5 giants in a single day.

    As far as Rhode Island goes, “A Guide Book to the Marine Fishers of Rhode Island” states “During August, 1949, over 30 tuna weighing up to 779 pounds were taken from the water near the buoy at Rosie’s Ledge off Watch Hill. The United States Atlantic Tuna Tournament, held August 14, 15 and 16, 1956, produced a total of 34 giant bluetins weighing a total of 16,780 pounds.” Thus, the initial poster’s comments seem valid, because you won’t see that sort of thing happening today.

    As far as the Western Stock goes, while US and Canadian regulators–and many US and Canadian fishermen–have a stellar record when compared to what goes on elsewhere, the stock is still badly depleted. The decline of the Bimini fishery, described by the first poster, is clear evidence of that, as that fishery was comprised of post-spawn fish migrating up out of the Gulf of Mexico. While a tuna or two is still caught there, the celebration of life that Hemingway, Farrington, Lerner and the like knew in the years immediately following the Second World War no longer exists.

    As to the cause, we can all share the blame. Back when I was young, it wasn’t uncommon to see recreationally-caught bluefin displayed, photographed and then dumped on a landfill or towed out to sea, because there was no market, and the “sports” couldn’t conseive of catch and release. As you know, the commercial fishery was minor, because the money just wasn’t there. But once the Japanese market opened, the commercial fishery quickly got out of hand, and recreational anglers embarassed themselves, throwing all ethics to the wind and growing dollar signs in their eyes. I remember the Montauk docks in the ’70s, when tuna buyers with rolls of cash met boats at the dock, and “sportsmen” in 50-foot yachts “had to” sell their bluefin “to pay for the trip.” People said that there were no recreational fishermen in the tuna fleet at that time, and they were largely correct.

    Today, we should know better. I have been a bluefin angler since I was old enough to afford my space on a boat. As the population dwindled, I went from catch-and-kill to catch-and-release, and stopped fishing for them altogether after the 2006 season, when I decided that I no longer wanted to kill even the few bluefin that happened to slash at a trolled lure and end up hooked in the eye, or came up from behind and took the hook deep in the throat or gills. We should know that longlining for other species in parts of the Gulf of Mexico at certain times of the year is going to result in bluefin bycatch, and that successful release is problematic given the warm Gulf water. We should know that, at this point in the bluefin’s history, management’s primary obligation should be to future generations of both humans and bluefin, not to short-term economic interests.

    Because abundance isn’t anything like it used to be. Even I see that, and I didn’t get into the game until things had already begun to slide downhill, and the first hesitant and inadequate management measures had already been adopted. I suspect many other people would admit to seeing the same decline, if their vision wasn’t obscured by the dollars in their eyes.

  7. Anonymous… I know this based on historical US bluefin catches… Take a look at http://www.reel-time.com/articles/comments-on-bluefin-abundance for some perspective. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that bluefin are anywhere near what they were pre mid-70’s when the bluefin decline began. The science is very clear on this as well. Bluefin remain at a severely depressed state, despite the welcome localized abundance we’ve experience during the last few years. What’s important is not where the bluefin are, it’s where they aren’t.

  8. Gentlemen:
    I grew up in Gloucester in the late 1950’s and 1960’s and fished for giant Tuna with my father, Terry Kilborne, who was the President of the Cape Anne Tuna Club at some point in those days and he owned and operated the Out O’ Gloucester Sportfishing Boat Company which was run off of the end of Rocky Neck. We built sport fishing boats between 30 and 42 ft. in length and had a 42′ boat at the time with a 13 ft. pulpit. In fact, in 1960 I won the Cape Anne Tuna Tournament when I was eight years old and it was covered by both Sports Illustrated, and Life Magazine. It was a smaller fish, a catch of a 264 lb. Bluefin but the 90 minute fight I had with it was the toughest fight I ever had and I have been a sport fishing for all of the larger fish of the sea. In the 58′-63′ time frame, I remember fish coming down from Nova Scotia when we would see them pushing a wake the size of that left by a large Hatteras, that went seemingly from one end of the horizon to the other. It was an incredible time as the Atlantic was what it had been for eons. I fished tournaments from Gloucester down to Montauk, including Cuttyhunk, Conn. (Swordfish) and many others from Cape Cod down to Block Island and on down. I used to “stick” fish as well as fish rod & reel. One day we boated three fish over 900 lbs. and the fishing was simply incredible. I can attest to what the fishery was like in those days and remember having triple hookups trolling across schools swimming south in the summer and fall and seeing the fish swim by/under the boat that were simply huge and as thick as a Mackerel school. It was an incredible time when the largest concentrations of fish were far off shore (Middle Bank and Grand Banks) there were fish caught close in shore on occasion and I remember similar sightings off Cape Code. These were the days when 1,000 lb. Blue Sharks could be seen throughout the day, 2,500 lb. Sunfish were the norm and huge Swords were plentiful. One day we hooked up a Sword that had to be over a 1,000 lbs. and when he struck the bait he spooled the first rod and we had to set up a second and through the first over the side. to keep the fish on. That fight went on for around ten hours and after getting the first rod back u, the rod tip broke yet the fight continued with us trying to boat the fish three times, having him simply get just outside the range of the flying gaff before he would swim wide again and finally broke the line and slowly swam away. It was a giant. In fact one day we counted 13 Killer Whales attacking a Blue Whale and it was truly a “Clash of the Titans” that was simply a sight I will never forget., The amount of blood that covered the ocean surface a half mile away was not to be believed. But the Bluefin was the fish that we all loved to fish for. The sound of a strike, and the reel screaming was so incredibly exciting, and we had so many fish on over the years that it broke my heart when I moved to San Diego in 72′ to attend law school and remained on the west coast to realize that the fishery was being destroyed. No one ever thought of the fact that the oceans might be finite resources and that the fishery could be decimated. The last estimates I saw were that 90% of the fishery is gone and while I am sure there has been some recovery of the fishery, it cannot be anything near what should be done. The last time I fished off Cape Cod, other than Blue Fish it seemed as though the ocean was almost dead; I did not see a shark fin the entire five days. The people of Gloucester have suffered over the last thirty years as the fisheries were depleted and I know from talking with friends who still live in Gloucester that the state had to declare a state of emergency due to the economic losses caused by the loss of the industry in the 1990s and I am unaware of what it is like now but to think that all this was destroyed in just over 30 years of fishing, is frankly overwhelming. Anyone who is claiming the fishery can support any threat to its recovery is frankly motivated by nothing other than short term profit. It will take years to try to rebuild the fishery. I have not taken a marlin or any other game fish that has not been catch and release for over twenty years. If we had only known!! I will never forget the days when the Atlantic was full of life and the Bluefin was the most magnificent fish in the sea. It is with such sadness that I read this blog as I work on a short book covering the earlier days of my life that I was reminded I should at least add a comment. When my son turned eight we went to Cabo to see if he could come close to matching my feat at his age. The first day out he caught a 252 lb. Blue Marlin that was just short of 11′ ft. long and weighed 252 lbs! What a tremendous experience nut even with strict conservation efforts in place, the fishery of Baja is changing. I hope that we can all hold in our memories the thoughts of the great times we had and work to recreate the life that once existed in the ocean we all love so much, through conservation and scientific methods of rebuilding the fisheries. I still feel the pangs of guilt at having participated in the destruction of the these magnificent fish, and the lack of knowledge is simply not a defense to what we did. TO be sure, the Japanese markets made fishing for these huge fish, a gold hunt, but with no better results than that which met the animals which grow Ivory in Africa and other parts of the world. This world became such a small place so incredibly quickly that I sometimes wonder whether we will be lucky enough to avoid our own extinction Those of us who have them, are lucky to be able to relive our memories. I wish you all the very best.

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