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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

Politics of Catch-and-Release Fishing for Bluefin
Late in the 1970s, before Canadian bluefin assumed their prime sushi status, the fish simply stopped coming to PEI. A common assumption is that a minor shift in the Gulf Stream brought cold water to the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, blocking their route around to PEI. When the big bluefin came back a decade later, a few boats took charters during the commercial season, keeping both charter fees and the fish. But in following years, PEI’s tuna quota — and the time fishermen required to fill it — continually shrank as regulations tightened and fish became more plentiful.

“It’s just been the past few years that the fleet has been getting busier again as the number of tuna in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has really exploded,” says Capt. Jamie Gauthier of PEI’s Tuna Charter Boat Association. “With the commercial season being so short now — 38 hours in 2010 — we began running catch-and-release charters,” Gauthier says.

But nothing is simple with giant bluefin tuna. In 2008 and 2009, PEI’s charter association purchased quota from Newfoundland to account for the 18 percent of fish released by the charter fleet that the Canadian government assumed would die — an assumption based on studies of other species and in other locations. Last year that dropped to 11 percent, presumably because Lutcavage’s records showed extremely low mortality. Canada also set aside 10 metric tons of its total quota for catchandrelease charters and scientific tagging. Assuming 11 percent die, at PEI’s average of about 730 pounds, that’s just 275 tuna that the Canadian ­government will allow to be caught and then released.

Commercial fishermen are another obstacle. “There was a lot of talk that all the fish we released were dying,” Gauthier says of the fish released by charter skippers, which incited tension between charter and commercial captains.

Last summer, Dr. Michael Stokesbury of Acadia University and Dr. John Neilson with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada worked with 20 PEI tuna fishermen to tag 59 fish with fail-safe satellite tags. Only two fish died — 3.4 percent — easing the minds of most commercial tuna men, and presumably adjusting mortality estimates for 2011. “There’s still opposition to catch-and-release, but people are realizing we’re not hurting the bluefin,” Gauthier says.

Meanwhile PEI’s commercial bluefin quota shrank from 250 metric tons in 2006 down to 126 tons for 2011. “The idea of charters is getting more popular,” he says.

Beginning this season, a few boats in northeastern Nova Scotia will also run catch-and-release bluefin charters. “One metric ton of tuna brings about $15,000 into the community,” says Dale Trenholm, vice president of Gulf Nova Scotia Charter Fishing Association. “Assuming 3.4 percent mortality, if we’re releasing one fish per day on charters, that same metric ton brings in at least $80,000. That’s just to fishermen, not the money spent at the airport and hotels and restaurants.” Yet like Gauthier, Trenholm has a hard time convincing his fellow commercial fishermen of the value of charters.

Canadian Tuna Charters
Commercial fishermen in PEI and Nova Scotia earn most of their income lobstering. Charter boats are well kept and comfortable, but they’re still single-engine lobster boats with some added safety gear. Private boats aren’t allowed in the fishery, and PEI has some unusual restrictions on charters. Each boat can release only one fish in a day. Fight times are kept shorter than 90 minutes, even if that means the mate finishes the fight. Canadian DFO rigid-hull inflatables monitor the fleet off PEI closely.

Of PEI’s 17-boat charter fleet, only Clark’s boat had a fighting chair as of last summer. Four or five more boats are expected to install chairs this summer. Another half-dozen boats provide stand-up gear, spooled with the government-required minimum of 130-pound-test, though many fish 200-pound-test line.

The few boats running out of northeast Nova Scotia fish by the same rules in the same waters, and some already have fighting chairs installed. (Northumberland Strait, which separates the two provinces, is only 14 miles wide.) In fact, it was a boat out of Nova Scotia fishing here that landed the IGFA all-tackle-record 1,496-pound Atlantic bluefin tuna in 1979.

Tuna arrive in PEI waters late in July, and most boats won’t run charters much past Halloween. Clark says August provides the best weather, but occasional storms in September and October move through quickly, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence — only 150 miles across — quiets overnight. Those willing to risk an occasional rough day will find bigger fish in the fall, Clark says: “That 1,200-pound fish, I don’t know what it would have weighed after two months of a bellyful of herring.”

Southern Nova Scotia Tuna
Capt. Eric Jacquard also tags fish with Lutcavage. His boat, Fin Seeker sails from Wedgeport, Nova Scotia. The first giant tuna were caught here on the southwest coast of Nova Scotia, including Zane Grey’s then-record 758-pounder in 1924. In 1935, International Game Fish Association founder Michael Lerner, together with legendary captain Tommy Gifford, battled massive tuna on Soldier’s Rip, just yards from Wedgeport’s shores. Beginning in 1937, the International Tuna Cup Match drew President Franklin Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, singers, actors, adventurers — Wedgeport was the center for huge tuna fishing.

Then in 1950, tuna catches declined sharply. “They built the causeway out to Cape [Sable] Island in 1949,” says Capt. Louis Boudreau. “The next year the herring went ashore and died by the thousands,” he says of the mile-long strip of land blocking water once open to the tide. The tuna left Soldier’s Rip, and the tournament lost its luster.

But bluefin tuna were still around. “A lot of boats were going offshore swordfishing, harpooning. We saw schools of tuna out there,” says Capt. Ernie Porthier, another old hand out of Wedgeport. But tuna weren’t worth pursuing: “The last year I harpooned one, we got 10½ cents per pound.”

Nova Scotia Recreational Angling Today
Currently the only opportunities to catch tuna in southern Nova Scotia are during the Wedgeport Tuna Tournament in mid-August, or another tournament in Halifax toward the end of September. Charters are available for the tournaments, and both allow international yachts to participate — the only opportunity for private boats to fish for Canadian bluefin tuna. Currently, the Halifax tournament lands only the first 10 bluefin caught, without selectively releasing smaller fish. In the Wedgeport tournament, each boat can land only one bluefin.