Big Fish May Spell Trouble

A slow bluefin tuna season with larger than average fish prompts concern

1The New England Bluefin tuna season has seen a slow start and it does not seem to have gotten a whole better better. Some would say that it has gotten a lot worse. For those who have been able to find the fish, the average size is up over that of the last few years. What does this mean?

I should also say that this blog contradicts what one of my fellow bloggers reported last week, but his comments came from the Mid-Atlantic area. He has been seeing a lot of what I am calling smaller bluefins. They don’t seem to have shown up the same way north of the Cape. In the New England area, I cannot believe that the low reported numbers is all a product of non-reporting by the angling category permit holders.

At the time this was being written, I did not have the latest landings data from National Marine Fisheries Service, but all the anecdotal information pointed to lower landings of bluefin with an increase in the average size. That was confirmed by one of the very top bluefin scientists Molly Lutcavage, who is a research professor for UMass and works out of the Large Pelagics Research center at Hodgkins Cove north of Annisquam on Cape Ann. She indicated, “The availability of really big fish seems to be higher than the last couple of years.”

Some think that the low numbers are a product of poor weather during June and July, but it may also be a product of low forage base. On the other side of that are reports from a number of spotter pilots that indicate they are seeing much larger schools of really large fish. That is good news and bad news.

One boat out of Gloucester, MA did land a pretty decent fish that weighed in at 920 pounds. I did not confirm this, but suspect that was bled weight so the fish in total would have been over a grand. It was landed by one of the boats from “Wicked Tuna,” a somewhat moronic show in my opinion, but that has little to do with the tuna fishery for this summer. Good news.

This year’s Bluefin Blowout tournament out of Cape Ann’s Marina and Resort had 45 boats that fish hard for two days from Cape Cod up to Nerw Hampshire and well offshore. The result was not a single fish was landed during the tournament. Bad news.

This overall scenario reminds me of the mid-1980’s when the size of the average bluefin was on the rise and the numbers were in decline. During that period, the All-Tackle IGFA record for bluefin seemed to get broken every year. Most of those fish were taken up off Nova Scotia in the Auld’s Cove area which is near the Canso Causeway. I fished several years back then off North Lake, Prince Edward Island. We saw many granders and my largest weighed in at 1,115 pounds bled weight. I’d like to know what it would have weighed in total. I digress. What was happening then was that we were witnessing the end of a cycle of abundance. The remaining fish got really big, but there was not a lot to fill in behind it. Those big fish are prolific breeders and they were taking the brunt of the fishing pressure. It was not a good situation. My concern is that we may be seeing the beginning of the same type of cycle.

The other thing that is concerning is that the big fish have brought out the tuna seiners, who have been sitting on the sidelines for quite a few years, some since 2004. They have been making some sets and doing pretty well. This was the same scenario back in the 1980’s. There was all kind of effort to keep them out of Massachusetts Bay to give the harpoon, general category and recreational boats a chance at the fish. That did not work and the seiners took most of their quota in big fish.

I realize that they made a deal to stay away from small bluefin tuna in order to get a quota of giants, but I have thought all along that this is a very poor use of a valuable resource. Their quota has a far greater socio-economic value being caught by general category, harpoon or recreational users. Now let’s face it, there are not many true recreational users when it comes to the giants, but the net value still is far greater. As for a product, those caught by hook and line or harpoon are higher quality than those fish that are beaten up as the net is pursed along side the seiner vessel.

It is time for the majority of bluefin tuna users to push for the elimination of purse seining of this valuable resource in the western North Atlantic ocean. It seems to me that the remaining vessels in this fleet have survived catching other fish and they should make that a full time effort. This is a great opportunity to support the small boat fleet and create a greater socio-economic value from the public trust resource. Maybe this should be part of the Magnusson-Stevens Act re-authorization or maybe it can be a regulatory fix. Whatever the answer, it will not get done without a lot of us making it happen.

For More Information:

Cove-based study eyes ‘juvenile’ bluefin tuna

New bluefin tuna rules proposed in Atlantic, Gulf

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"Rip" Cunningham, who owned, published and edited Salt Water Sportsman for 32 years, is also an accomplished writer and photographer. Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray's Sporting Journal, Australian Boating and the Boston Globe Magazine. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association, the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts, The Billfish Foundation and Federation of Fly Fishers. "I've earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It's rewarding every single day." Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dogs in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he's not fishing or working through the items on his wife's "honey-do" list, Cunningham does some hunting and skiing.

Posted in Bluefin Tuna, Conservation
2 comments on “Big Fish May Spell Trouble
  1. avatar Jeff Yapalater says:

    Thanks for the viewpoint.

    Down here off NY, it is an inconsistent bite. The big bite off Jersey and Long Island the past few years has cooled off somewhat with less recreational anglers finding steady seasonal action. Fish weight varies from schoolies to 80lbers.
    They appear one area for a couple of days then disappear and re-appear. As this fishery was a boon to short yellow fin seasons, this year it has not been dependable. On occasion a few anglers would say they saw a giant school but that was short lived.
    This year even the good bigeye bite changes from day to day and area to area with the exception of the Washington Canyon which had the longest run. The yellowfin run has bee near non-existent off Long Island with only a few reports.
    To your seine point, it was reported that there were tuna seiners 30 or so miles off Shinnecock. They are certainly targeting the bluefin in this area.Not good given the reported low population.
    We are all looking forward to the fall run for all species. Hopefully fishing will be more dependable and pick up.

  2. avatar Peter says:

    This has been what I have seen over the last 4-5 years or so, a steady decline in the school, sm. giant and medium giant fish. The fishery off of RI has been in decline in general since the 1980s. The fish are fewer and further offshore and are feeding in transit to the northeast. There have been sporadic inshore shows of school tuna, but they are brief and rare. Not for lack of bait and favorable conditions. The fishery that once brought so much exciteent and joy has a become a measure of frustration and disappointment. Fishing is never a guarantee, but here in RI, time, distance, economics and weather added to a stressed fishery have combined to push many recreational and charter tuna fishermen out. I still go out, largely because i enjoy beeing offshore and seeing the other life out there. Just seeing a tuna is worth it.

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