With the 2018 Atlantic bluefin season on the horizon, a massive debate is burning up social media. The debate is all about the daily retention in the bluefin general category. With the crazy season of 2017 in the forefront on everyone’s minds, a vast majority of general category boats are screaming for a greatly reduced daily retention, of one or two fish to start the 2018 season. Some are even asking for scheduled days off each week, limited entry, and I have even heard some calling to kick the pulpits out of the general category.
I have seen the same thing over and over in my 50 years commercial fishing — fishermen fighting fishermen over the fish pie. Be careful what you wish for, and if you can be united, you can achieve a lot more with the government. As an industry, we have seen our bluefin being worth a fraction of what the fish sold for 10 to 20 years ago. Many factors are at play for the reason behind this. I’m also going to simplify this debate by using just the last two seasons and data gathered by the American Bluefin Tuna Association as samples.
The 2016 season, we can all pretty much agree, was super overall for bluefin (except for average price). We started the year with a five-fish daily/trip limit, and the season closed in early November, when the daily retention was taken down to two a day, and finally one a day in the last week of the fishery.
In August, with the limit still at five fish, the Georges bank fishery was expanded with more boats each week, boats from down south were as plentiful as the boats from Maine and Massachusetts on Georges in 2016. Seaports like Gloucester, Mass., and Portland, Maine, benefited greatly from the southern boats buying everything from fuel and ice to hardware and bar tabs.
When a lot of fish would hit the market, the prices dropped, but that is the norm in any fishery. When the final gun was sounded in 2016, I do not know of a single boat that could say this season sucked, we all made some money and caught our share of fish.
What a difference a year can make! The short version of 2017 played out like this: The daily retention to start the year was set at a reduced four fish per day/trip. On Aug. 5, the retention was reduced to two fish a day, and we got shut down for the last two weeks in August. The season reopened Sept. 1 at one fish a day. Then shut down again for two weeks and reopened Oct. 1 for a grand total of five days, pretty much ending the season for the majority of us. No one got to fish Georges last year. The southern boats never arrived, everyone was bitching like mad. Which brings us around to the great debate we are now having, with 2017 fresh in the mind, fishermen are screaming one a day!
So let’s do the numbers. (Thank you, ABTA)
June–August sub quota breakdown — 233.3 mt allowed
September — 123.7 mt
October — 60.7 mt
December — 8.0 mt
June 1-July 3 — 40 fish caught at a four a day, for a grand total of 10.94 mt
July 4-Aug. 4 — 1,498 fish landed at four a day, for a total of 231.99 mt or 7.03 mt a day
Aug. 5-16 — 546 fish caught at two a day. The daily average was 7.24 mt, which means the daily tonnage increased when the limit was reduced!
The big question is what would have happened if it was set from June 1 at two fish per day instead of four? The very best scenario would have extended the season by four days!
We have had our quota for bluefin increased from 2,000 mt for the United States/Canada/Japan to 2,350 mt. Our biomass of fish is healthy. While I know every one of us wants a situation that best suits our own boat and crew, there are a lot of people involved in this fishery.
There is a relatively newer fishery in the winter in the southern states, and these fishermen want a bigger quota to extend their chances of making some money when the bluefin are off their coasts. I’m going to use my boat for a sample here. The Maggie is a harpoon boat that goes hooking, for me to have a successful tuna season, I need to put together a good harpoon season, June and July, take my pulpit off in August and keep my head down with the hooks. I am very successful fishing Georges Bank in late August and September. For me personally I need the retention to be set at four or five fish to be able to have a shot at putting a season together, I cannot fish Georges at one or two a day/trip.
People tell me to buy another boat and put one in each category. I can barely afford the one boat I have. This is not an option for me or just about everyone else I know. They tell me to go into the harpoon category, but I am not good enough at my craft to do this. I’m a better hooker than I am a harpooner and catch more by hook than harpoon.
The vast majority of the harpoon quota is caught up by two or three plane-assisted boats. You simply cannot compete with these few fishermen. Almost every boat with a pulpit is in the general category for these same reasons, and while we are a minority, there are a lot of pulpits. The gang who fish Georges Bank, and the boats from down south, need the daily retention to be set at four or five fish to justify the offshore fishery. And again I point to 2016 as successful season.
The bluefin being a highly migratory species, so many factors come into play trying to manage such a difficult species, this article would become an essay going into this in to great of detail. To the fishermen asking for limited entry, look to Alaska for some answers here. The hired captains and mates who fish for the companies that own the shares, these guys work. The owners benefit from the catch records of their hired crews. How are the shares in bluefin to be divided up, what are the cutoffs, who gets what? I can say from firsthand experience here, be careful.
Days off (no fish Sundays or weekends off), oh man you just know the best harpoon days of the year are going to fall on every bloody Sunday! Our New England weather will give you more than enough days off. Do not let the government in this door!
And finally to the guys stamping their feet screaming for a one fish a day limit: Jeez mate, the numbers have be done for you by ABTA. Don’t be so fast to cut off your second double header of the day. Multiple-fish days don’t come along very many days each season. Please don’t let ignorance spoil epic days on the water for those of us trying to make a living catching the most amazing fish swimming in our waters.