Return Of The Bluefin

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The bluefin are back. I mean this in both the immediate, local sense and in the grander, global scheme.The Hudson Canyon got its second season going this week, with a good bite of medium- and large-medium-class bluefin tuna. Some boats hit pay dirt, with as many as a dozen fish caught, most going between 120 and 150 pounds. A smattering of lingering warm water tunas, longfin albacore and bigeyes were in the mix as well.

These 120-to-150-pound fish are a recreational fishery, and each boat is only allowed to keep one fish per day (a rule that is far too often ignored). Those with commercial permits and their eyes on decking four giant class bluefins (more than 73 inches) were disappointed but hopeful that the flood of small fish means their larger cousins are close behind.

Last year, the giants arrived in the Hudson shortly after the mediums did. Tuna hunters from all over the coast will be watching for even the narrowest weather window in the next couple of weeks.

The news of the bite is the good news for those with boats in the water, but there is good news about bluefins for everyone with an interest in tuna fishing, or even just in the resilience of Mother Nature.

Scientists for the International Convention on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the ICCAT, say that new stock assessments show that the hyper-valuable bluefin tuna population is once again growing, despite decades of intense fishing pressure. Amazingly, the stock of bluefins that roams the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, and is slaughtered in shocking numbers (dozens of times more than are caught off North America), is actually expanding under the incredible pressure.

Of course, this is all good news—if it is to be believed. The ICCAT is one of the most notoriously politically corrupted fishery management organizations on the planet, and its science has been seen as deeply flawed in the past (there are fishermen who would say the same about all fishery management efforts, I’m sure). But these surveys, I get the impression, are seen as generally accurate in their implication, if not in their finest details.

So that’s good news. Now, for the word of caution: In the wake of the announcement, the American delegation announced it would be immediately expanding its quota for bluefins. This is understandable, and is all well and good, as long as it does not turn again to gluttony—something that is always a danger when dealing with a fish that can be worth $15,000 or more each.

The United States must be careful in how it parses out the additional number of bluefins it sees as acceptable to catch without threatening the viability of future catches. As it is, the U.S. has rarely filled its entire quota of bluefin catches in recent years. This is largely because, as it should be, the bulk of the bluefin caught by the U.S. are caught by rod-and-reel fishermen, who are at the mercy of a wide range of insurmountable conditions that can prevent fish from being caught.

Quota increases could easily be filled in a few ways, each with their dangers: allowing more small tunas to be kept by recreational fishermen, which would take away from the more valuable catch of older, larger fish down the road; allowing longliners to keep more of their incidentally caught bluefins, which is just common sense but is ripe for abuse; or allowing purse-seiners to catch more fish, which is just feeding an industry that carries the fewest residual economic benefits. Most likely, all three will happen, for better and worse.

Like the PLO of the high seas, America’s fisheries managers and the lobbyists who throw money at them never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. One can almost hear the horse hockey catchwords of commercial fishery lobbyists talking about “recovery” and “under utilization” of the East Coast bluefins now.

Looking over the horizon, the good news about the bluefins is great news for everyone in the recreational fishing industry. A growing bluefin stock will mean more opportunities for tuna fishermen to head for the horizon. That will, in turn, mean millions more dollars in fishing tackle (the rods built to catch giant bluefin cost upward of $2,000 each), fuel and boat sales pumped into local economies.

Locally, it’s been a long time since bluefin tuna played nearly any role in the fishing season on Long Island. While there have been few signs that the recovery of the bluefins from the wanton waste of the 1970s and 1980s is going to bring giant tuna fishing back to the Mudhole and Dumps in any meaningful way, the benefits will likely be found over time. The bite in the Hudson may be the first signs of that.

Whether this deep-water bite is a new occurrence or something that has been taking place for decades and only recently came onto the radar of sportfishermen, I don’t know. The late fall migration of river herring and bunker has certainly been crossing the Hudson for eons, and it would follow that larger predators, of which the bluefin is the king at this time of year, were certainly always along for the meal.

Closer to shore, the cod and sea bass fishing south of Block Island has been excellent. There are still a few blackfish on the shallow wrecks. And there is little optimism left that striped bass are going to put in a late-season showing here, so bottom fish and tunas may be all we have left.

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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