Fisherman's Diary: Bluefin Tuna in the Northeast
When I say to folks,”I am a Bluefin Tuna Fisherman” the response is usually something along the same lines:
“Oh my, you must be rich! Don’t those sell for thousands of dollars a pound?” My nose curls and my hands clench – the fact is that this kind of stuff is just not true. I don’t make a lot of money catching one fish at a time. Thanks to the highly successful reality show “Wicked Tuna,” the viewing public has a wildly inflated impression on just how much New England fishermen are getting paid. In conjunction with the marketing tactics by Japanese sushi tycoon Kiyoshi Kimora, who is willing to pay 1.7 million dollars for a Bluefin (2013 $1.7 million dollars for one Bluefin,) media outlets and ENGOs, have taken this as gospel. A solidified misconception has been translated as fact, indicative of the overall global stock of Bluefin species.
During the first week of January in Japan the Tsukiji fish market, which is the largest in the world, a ritual of good luck and fortune for the fisherman, buyers, and retailers for the coming year is held. A bidding war commences on a stipulated Maguro (Bluefin) exclusive to the Japanese waters. No imported Maguro will be in consideration. It MUST be a Japanese Maguro. This merry go round of bidding and out bidding causes the price of the Maguro to skyrocket quickly. This is what happened from 2009-2013 until it spiked at the 1.7 million dollars a kilo. The owner of this winning Maguro owns several sushi restaurants called Zushi Zanmai throughout Japan. Can one imagine this kind of socio-economic cultural phenomena in New Hampshire? It is something between Black Friday and Union dues towards an aquaculture crop or livestock farmed locally.
It’s not difficult to conclude that a brilliant marketing and advertising scheme has been felt across the globe. Unfortunately, many media outlets and environmental non-government organizations ran with this as gospel and have proselytized this info as direct evidence of the economic law of supply and demand. As the stock is depleted, the price goes up. However, in this instance this is not the case, especially in the Northwestern Atlantic (Cape Cod to Canadian Maritimes.)
There are specific seasons here in New England. Our bluefin season runs from June 1-Dec 31. We have specific length requirements as well as trip catch limits. These regulations are set by The National Marine Fisheries Service under the Highly Migratory Species arm. All tunas, billfish and sharks are managed under this Federal branch of NMFS. Here in New Hampshire, the first Bluefin of the season is usually caught by harpoon.
Bluefin come here to the Gulf of Maine, just like Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and Pinnipeds (seals), to feed on the rich abundance of Herring, Mackerel, Krill and Sand Eels. The water is cold in June(50F), and once the tunas have had a feast, they will rise to the surface and digest their meals in the sunny warmer surface waters. We are able to harpoon them. The harpooning of bluefin in New England is the last vestige of the old whaling traditions. As the water warms up gradually through the summer, the fish settle to lower depths and we begin to hook tunas using baited hooks on rod and reel. These are the most common methods of harvesting Bluefin tunas in the Gulf of Maine. Both of these highly sustainable methods have specific landing categories that comply with NMFS size, weight and daily retention limits.
There are no floating factories, long liners or draggers which target Giant Bluefin Tuna in the Gulf of Maine. BFT are very smart, strong fish designed to travel long distances with ease. To say the least, BFT are hard to predict, understand, and most of all depend on. This is true for both the harvest as well as the management. As mentioned earlier, they fall into Highly Migratory Species bracket of our regulatory body.
It is this elusivity that puts this fish into its own celestial orbit. This fish is a verified rock star that commands our infatuation, like that of a true groupie.
On one hand media outlets and lobbyists use phrases like “unrelenting hunger and willingness to pay top dollar for the fatty pink flesh of this swiftly disappearing fish.” and this to some is validated by the 1.7 million dollar fish referenced above. On the contrary, the average price paid to US fisherman is $9/lbs. This is less than that of Sea Scallops; please see pricing info provided by NOAA in its SAFE report of Bluefin, on their website. For a fish weighing 500 lbs, I may get $10/lbs. Minus all the expenses involved in consignment on the Japanese market, handling commissions and vessel operating expenses, this leaves me, the captain, at a net return of perhaps $2000.00. There are no guarantees that every trip targeting BFT rests in a catch of BFT. To top it all off I am met with the variables of fish handling, overall quality, fat, and color content and even the fishes diet.
When I read a doom and gloom depiction of BFT in an article, I first question the affiliation and bias of the parties involved. Then I observe if there are any distinction between the 3 species of BFT, is there any local or regional focus. Third, what or whom are the referenced sources?
Often times the journalism is poorly sourced, using data from an environmental non-government organization and a chef who wants to make a name for themselves. The only science we have to determine maximum sustainable yield and biomass assessments are the ICCAT’s (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), Standing Committee for Research and Statistics (SRCS), and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
Consumers must scrutinize the information that is offered to them, much like Bluefin do when they see my baited lines. Just because its out there, does not make it viable or factual. Bluefin are analogous to Salmon. Just like the Salmonids famliy, there are species and subspecies; Coho, Chinook, Sockeye, Chum, Pink. Scombridae (mackerel family) also have species; Mackerel, Bonitos, and Tunas. Tuna have species and furthermore, Bluefin tuna have sub species. Three subspecies of Bluefin exist world wide (Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern.)
Several species of Salmon are listed by ESA (Endangered Species Act), but do we stop eating Salmon all-together? The same question can be asked of Bluefin. However, New England, specifically the Gulf of Maine, is host to the Giant Atlantic Bluefin during the months of June to December. Due to great cooperation between regulators, scientist and stakeholders (fisherman) we have an emblematic sustainable fishery. It is not overfished. We are part of a truly artisanal fishery. To distill this; Bluefin is an underutilized consumer resource during peak months. Due to the fish’s global demand, our exposure to bluefin is within Japanese or Panasian establishments in the form or TORO (fatty tuna) sushi and sashimi.
Locally there is no dialog about this highly migratory species. If we consider this an alternative to our indigenous seafood (lobster, groundfish, etc) It will be available to the general public. Bluefin is canned, cured and smoked in Italy, Spain and throughout Europe. Why not here? Markets can carry quantities as it becomes available in conjunction with demand. The demand just must be made present.