NC Bluefin Anglers Get Break From NMFS

Bluefin tuna anglers in North Carolina caught a break from the National Marine Fisheries Service (they believe) when the federal agency that oversees the take of these huge pelagic creatures upped the season limit from three to five fish per boat for the 2011-2012 winter-spring season.

The NMFS announced a final rule that:

(1) increased the General category maximum possible daily retention limit from three to five fish (with limit adjustments to be executed via in-season actions as appropriate);

(2) allowed the BFT General category season to remain open until the January sub-quota is reached by March 31 (whichever happens first); and

(3) increased the Harpoon category daily retention limit of 73 to 81 inches from two to four fish.

The General category measures are effective November 30, 2011, and the Harpoon category measure will be effective December 30, 2011. However, the Harpoon category fishery is open June 1 to Nov. 15 each year. NMFS has made one change from the proposed rule to allow the General category season to remain open annually until the January sub-quota is reached March 31 rather than May 31 as originally proposed (whichever happens first).

Bluefins are a prime winter target of many coastal captains who hope to catch them and sell them to buyers for Tsukiji (the Tokyo fish market). Japanese prize bluefins for sushi or sashimi and will pay amazing amounts to anglers who land Atlantic bluefins. With a dearth of tourist/anglers visiting the N.C. coast from December through February, a single bluefin can salvage an entire winter and keep a captain from having to go south to Florida and fight with other captains for scarce snowbird clients or remain home and be on welfare.

Southern bluefins, prized for their mild taste, are preferred by Oriental palettes, and the Nipponese willingly fork over astronomical payments for a single, prime Carolina-caught tuna. How big is the money?

Well, the price per unit peaked in 1990 at $68 per pound when a typical 350-pound fish sold for around $10,000. However, by 2008 bluefin prices had fallen to $46 a pound. But the Tokyo market is volatile and prime tuna (unsullied by a long fight against a rod and reel and build up of lactic acid in the fish’s body) still can command a jaw-dropping price. Single bluefins have brought $150,000 (2001) and $173,000 ($1600 per pound).

“This (decision) goes to show that by pulling together and hiring a lobbyist that we can get something done,” said Capt. Keith Logan of Feedin’ Frenzy Charters of Holden Beach, a saltwater fishing guide and activist leader for recreational anglers.

“This took three years to get done. The American Bluefin Tuna Association also played a big part in getting this passed. I was at the meetings in North Carolina and South Carolina over the last three years, and we went from Bluefin Tuna going on the endangered spices list to this.”

Previously the season limit was one, then two, then three bluefins per season.

“I still don’t agree on the three to five fish,” Logan said. “I would of like to have seen (the limit) stay at three bluefins, and that was what I asked for. Going from three to five will make the season end soon and we get a lot of bluefin in North Carolina in February.”

The N.C. record bluefin, an 805-pounder, was reeled in March 12, 2011, by a Virginia man off Oregon Inlet. Corey Shultz of Waverly, Va., caught the fish aboard the Sea Breeze out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. The bluefin measured 112 inches curved fork length with a 76-inch girth.

Apparently, NMFS regulations are based upon studies that show severely-restricted bluefin tuna fishing along the Atlantic Coast a few years ago helped rebuild the stock. However, many ocean experts still believe bluefins are a threatened species, mostly because of over-harvesting by European, Mediterranean and African nations. Disagreement remains about whether or not Atlantic bluefins are one stock or two because some American-waters-tagged fish have been caught off the coast of Africa. Critics of U.S. fishing policies claim lax overseas regulations may mean U.S. rules need to be tighter in order to keep the entire bluefin population from approaching an unrecoverable low number.

Logan also pointed out NMFS took 160 metric tons of allowable bluefin tuna quota from the United States and gave it to Mexico and South America.