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July 08, 2011

Back to Bluefin

Science is giving anglers new opportunities to catch and release monsters in the famed giant-tuna grounds of the Canadian Maritimes

The Atlantic mackerel’s tail beat frantically on the water’s surface before it disappeared in the torrent of nearly seven feet of blitzing bluefin. When the tuna somehow missed the bait, Capt. Ewen Clark seemed grateful. “Get away!” he muttered over my shoulder to a fish clearly qualifying for “giant” status. “I saw that little fish roll on the bait and thought, ‘Don’t come back.’”

That attitude reflects the size of bluefin up here: In 17 years of commercial tuna fishing off Prince Edward Island, the smallest fish taken aboard Clark’s boat, Pura Vida, weighed 580 pounds. Bluefin in these waters average 700 pounds and nine feet long, and I soon found firsthand that they get much, much bigger.

But the real story in PEI isn’t just the size of bluefin tuna; these days, it’s that recreational anglers can fish for them at all.

In the 1970s, PEI’s busy charter fleet hung giant bluefin tuna on the dock so anglers could take photos. Then the worthless whole tuna carcasses were dumped at sea the next day. But by the mid-1980s, Japan’s taste for the fat-laden bluefin caught here had pushed prices upwards of $30 per pound.

This new industry brought ever-tightening government regulation and quotas, and made it illegal for anyone but commercial fishermen and scientists to hook bluefin tuna in Canada, even if the intention was to release the fish.

In just the past few years, a few fishermen and ­scientists worked to challenge long-held notions among both commercial fishers and biologists. Working together, they cut through government red tape and fishing politics to allow tightly controlled catch-and-release bluefin tuna charters off PEI.

Catching and Tagging Giants
“The power of a big tuna is unmatched. You can really feel that physical connection to the fish,” says Johnny Morris, the angler in Pura Vida’s fighting chair when the deep line came tight not long after that “little” 400-plus-pound tuna missed the kite bait. The fish that I saw eventually come alongside was both long and fat — weighing an estimated 1,200 pounds. “Once you get physically attached to powerful fish like that, it gets in your blood,” Morris says.

Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, is one of a select few outstanding anglers who fishes with Clark and Capt. Edward “Cookie” Murray to place pop-up satellite tags in giant bluefin off Prince Edward Island — until recently the only opportunity to fight and release bluefin here. Those tags, part of a study by the Large Pelagics Research Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, record depth, salinity, temperature and light every few minutes. After a year, the tags float to the surface and transmit their data through satellites back to Lutcavage’s lab. These PSAT tags offered the first scientific hint that a catch-and-release charter fishery might work for giant bluefin.

Cookie Murray has been handling these fish for decades,” says Dr. Molly Lutcavage, Large Pelagics Research Center director. “We worked with him to learn the ­techniques for tagging 900-pound fish in the water.” Unlike many other studies that capture fish with harpoon or purse seine and bring them aboard to tag, Lutcavage catches fish with rod and reel, and tags them while they swim alongside the boat. “Mortality rates are very low using our techniques,” she says. In 2001, new tags had the ability to show if fish died after tagging. Of the 350 of these “fail-safe” tags her team has placed, only two tuna have died.

Murray, who has targeted big-game fish around the world, insists none are equivalent to giant bluefin. “No matter how much we try to convey the strength of these fish, the pressure on the rod and angler, all that inevitably exceeds anglers’ expectations,” he says of even very experienced chair anglers who’ve not yet hooked a huge bluefin. Murray uses 30 to 45 pounds of drag, and at times 80 pounds. “The angler has to know when that line is going to break, exactly how much pressure he or she can put on the fish, and when and how to pump and wind,” he says.

To ensure each $4,500 tag pays off with data, Murray and Lutcavage’s other tagging crews in Nova Scotia also swim fish alongside the moving boat while inserting the tag. They remove barbless hooks and continue to tow the fish until it’s clearly recovered from the fight. The Large Pelagic Center’s tagging studies have huge implications for recreational fishermen. “Every study that uses fail-safe satellite tags is a post-release-mortality study,” Lutcavage says — the scientific measure of the success of catch-and-release angling.