The Local Food Report: bluefin tuna, part 1

Can you believe this fish?

The fishmonger's grandfather caught it, back in the 70s. That's him, over on the right. It's a bluefin tuna, from Cape Cod Bay. If you squint, you can almost make out the number 6 before the big white 80. Six hundred and eighty pounds, it weighed. Back then, this sort of fish was routine. Look—here's a whole heap of them on a dock. Four in one day!

These days, recreational tuna fishermen are awfully lucky to get one six-hundred-pounder. Four would be an off-the-charts day, kind of a fluke, really. Instead, what they're catching is juveniles—thousands and thousands of small fish.

Now I know how that sounds—catching baby fish, like it's done at night and tuna trades are happening in back alleyways—but it's actually perfectly legal. In Massachusetts, if you're on a recreational boat, you can catch any tuna 27 inches and bigger; it's just that you can't sell them. You are only allowed one adult fish—over 73 inches—a year, and you can't sell that either (only the commercial fishermen can). It takes bluefin about four or five years to reach adulthood, so they're really not babies anyhow. More like angsty teens. Once they reach about 300 pounds, they're called Giants. The biggest one ever caught in Massachusetts was landed in 1984: one thousand, two hundred and twenty-eight pounds.

In the eighties, the industry was still going strong. Even in the nineties; for commercial fisherman, the mid-nineties was the height of it all. The best fish were selling for $40 and $60 a pound. Most of them didn't stick around; instead, brokers sold them to buyers in Japan. The Japanese paid a much higher price than any Americans would, because until recently, we just weren't that into eating tuna. In the sixties, people in Provincetown used to sell it for catfood, for goodness sakes. It was more about sport than dinner.

But now that we've developed a hankering for sushi and sashimi and tuna tartare and all that good stuff, now that we can finally get excited about the Giants as a mealtime sort of thing, the big fish aren't appearing so often. They're up in Canadian waters, while Cape Cod Bay is filled with juveniles.

There are a lot of guesses out there as to why. Robert Fitzpatrick, a tuna broker out of Chatham, says he thinks the shift has at least something to do with herring trawlers. They come in, scoop up all the smaller fish, and there's nothing around for the tuna to eat. Why bother stopping in?

There's also the global population issue. Fishermen are over harvesting in places like the Mediterranean, and even though their oceans seem far away, we share the same pool of fish. So just because we might have good regulations in place and might try to limit our catch, it doesn't necessarily follow that these efforts really help the tuna when they swim over to the other side. They're still toast (or, ahem, sashimi) in the end.

Fitzpatrick says there's also the possiblity that the fish could have moved north due to some sort water warming or environmental change, but that he doesn't subscribe to the global warming "religion," so he's reluctant to pin the movement on just that.

Whatever is causing the shift, it isn't making fishermen around very happy. Whatever imaginary memories you have of tuna boat captains sitting around in gold pajama's, well, you can kiss them goodbye. These days, it's more of a fish-to-fish life.

Still, there is some good news. This fall, there was one spectacular week. Suddenly in early November, two big schools of fish showed up on cod fishing grounds southeast of Chatham's Stage Harbor, at a place the locals call the Figs. Most tuna fisherman had already derigged for the season, but gillnetters out cutting codfish noticed the tuna and sounded the alarm. Over the course of the week, two hundred seventy-nine fish were caught, averaging over six hundred pounds dressed weight. It was quite the show, the biggest we've seen in a long time, Fitzpatrick says.

I'm not going to give you a recipe (it hardly seems right, after a conversation like this), but I do have another perspective on the state of our tuna industry coming up. Next week, I'll be talking with Molly Lutcavage about her study of the fish—from the air, and these days, the sea. It isn't one to miss.

P.S. Even though no one is supposed to be selling those smaller fish—the ones under 73 inches— there's a lot of backdooring going on with restaurants and chefs. If people start squirming when you ask where, specifically, a piece of tuna was caught, and just exactly how big it was, and who got it, or what licensed wholesaler delivered it, I'd choose something else to eat.

P.P.S. All of these pictures are from somewhere around the 1960s or 70s. All of them feature some members of the fishmonger's family, and the top one is of a Dr. Martin Bradford, his grandfather. He won a lot of prizes from the Division of Commerce and Tourism for catching Giant bluefins back then, which is awfully ironic given the state of things today. I never got to meet him, but from what I've heard, he was one heck of a guy. Here he is later on, with a whole life's worth of tuna tails.


Anonymous said...

An interesting and balanced article on issues relating to the local bluefin tuna fishery, and wonderful photos! Studies have documented a year-on-year decline of catch in the western Atlantic for the last few decades, which some fear may be related not only to fishery efforts in the Mediterranean, but here as well. There is also the issue of ICCAT, which failed to set lower catch rates despite much support by member nations for reduced take limits and strong advice from ICCAT's own scientists. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7746965.stm

Anonymous said...

I heard an interesting report on NPR about someone who is doing research that we seem to be gradually selecting for smaller animals.

When we hunt or fish, we look for the biggest "whatever". The most impressively sized fish (antlered deer, etc.) are taken out of the population and their petite fellows are left in the breeding population.

Also, with all due respect to the gentleman you interviewed, climate change is a mainstream scientific theory. Only in America has anyone has ever seriously questioned it and we're finally catching up to the rest of the world.

Elspeth said...


Aren't the photos wonderful! We went and poked around Alex's grandmothers house for quite some time...they have a whole wall full of lovely old fishing pictures and certificates of accomplishment.

What an interesting article—an extra 30% from illegal catch! That is an un-arming number. It's the tragedy of the commons, as usual.


That sounds like a very interesting piece. I'd love to know what show it was on, if you remember. I think about that sort of thing a lot—wondering what science and medicine have done to natural selection, particularly in our own species. (I have a strong hunch someone so blind as me would not have survived back in the day! I can hardly see past my own nose without contacts.)

As for the global warming issue, I agree, but I don't think he so much meant he didn't believe it's happening as that he wasn't ready to blame the shift in tuna on it, as there are so many factors involved. It's an incredibly important issue!

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Hi Elspeth,

I think it may have been the 1/16 Science Friday piece, but I'd have to listen again to be sure. But this entry touches on the same topic of shrinking animals,


Anonymous said...

hi elspeth,
great tuna piece! and was grateful for the link to the ny times article. a friend forwarded your blog to stormy mayo, since his dad, charley, was a major tuna fisherman out of provincetown. he said that the second 2 photos were charley's catches, and when i enlarged the photos, i could see that charley is standing in the center in the second shot. stormy is the fellow standing to the furthest left in the 3rd photo. you may know stormy's son, josiah, who also fishes as well as plays in the band, squidda. i used to work with stormy at the center for coastal studies, and his dad was our boat captain during the winter when we were studying right whales in cape cod bay. charley had some great stories about tuna fishing around here, including the time a few giant tuna appeared to hide from an orca (killer whale)in the shadow of his boat. he had the whale on one side of his boat and the tuna on the other! though he was quite elderly while working with us, charley was like a little kid when we were near right whales. it is great to see these photos, they brought back some great memories--thank you!
irene, south wellfleet

Elspeth said...


I have heard a lot of stories about Charley—both from Alex's family and through being friends with Josiah.
I'm so glad the pictures brought back so many memories for you and everyone else!


Thank you so much for passing along the link. I will check it out tonight.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

This is great to bring back such memories. Charley Mayo is a legend in our family history. He practically taught my grandfather and partner how to land the giants. I grew listening to tales bug eyed of how spotter planes used to fly feet above the Chantey III in order to steal the captains tricks.

I would like to point out that these guys, even back in those days, started tagging giants and releasing them with the help of Frank Mathers from Woods Hole. It was way before their time.

If you would like to read an fantastic article about Charley, check out this December '62 Sports Illustrated feature on him.


-Fish Monger

T.H. said...

Great article -- I always thought it was kind of interesting that the Bluefin and the Stripers both went through similar ups and downs.

They used to catch them all the time in the 50's - real small, but relatively easy numbers. The 70's saw them both get bigger and more rare.

Now, they caught a lot smaller, overall, anyway. In the late 70's early 80's there was no such thing as schooly stripers -- now tons.

But, all that said, I realize they weren't perfectly parallel and the ups and downs were for different reasons.

Oh, BTW, those pics are great - but that top one is from '74 or '75... '73 at the earliest. How do I know? The other angler in the picture is my grandfather and constant co-fisher of Brad's, Wallace shepardson, known to most everyone as Shep (okay, to me as Grampy, but you get the picture). Anywho, that is how I knew them in the 70's and I dimly remember that one.

(I used to have that orange T-shirt he's wearing in the picture til in fell apart)

Cheers - Alex, Mac, & Sam ~ Holt

Elspeth said...


So good to hear from you! Thank you for the photo clarification...I will change that right now.


will stoloski said...

it seemed like the fisherman had made an enormous catch, but the fishermen insisted that they are catching fewer fish and smaller fish than in previous years. And the situation is so bad, they say, that they don't know how long they'll be able to stay in business.

"To stay afloat, this ancient ritual has been put in the service of a very modern corporate culture: all the tuna is taken to a factory ship moored a short distance away. Japanese buyers from Mitsubishi - the large industrial conglomerate best known in the U.S. for their cars - are on board, too. They pay big bucks for big bluefin, and they'd like to buy the whole catch, 600 in all." From the CBS website..this is the transcribed audio from the broadcast which in itself will change almost everything you might think you know about the species and man's relationship to this vital link in the ocean's organic chain. Watch the video at CBS. It'll will make an impression (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/01/11/60minutes/main3700644_page2.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody)

Elspeth said...

Thanks for posting this, Will. It is indeed very interesting.

All the best,

Scott Hapgood said...

Thank you for this post. For me, is a bit of a trip down memory lane. I worked for Charlie from '81-'85 on the Chantey III. I can still see Charlie on the bridge wearing the swordfish bill hat (secured to the pocket of his flannel shirt with 60 lb braided line), the beige pants and the blue boat shoes.

That period was like capturing time in a bottle for me. With the advantage and perspective that many years give, those were probably some of the best years and experiences of my life. I had not then; have not since, met another person that had a deeper understanding and respect of the holistic nature of the ocean and was yet humbled by those same things.

Every day and trip was like being in school. The lessons varied from literature and politics to ecology and even a bit of fishing.

I'd consider myself a fortunate person to have half as much influence on others as Charlie did.

Scott Hapgood
scott.hapgood (at) yahoo.com

norm6969@verizon.net said...

Came across this piece on the net and was amazed to see an old friend of mine, Ken Martin, in the photo showing six giants on the float shared by Charlie Mayo (Chantey III) and Bobby Woods (Dixie) in P'town. He's the tall guy in the middle. I saw my first bluefin landed by Ken on the Chantey III a couple of years later, and cought my first one on the Dixie a couple of years after that. Needless to say, I was "hooked". I spent time as a part owner of two boats, and crewed on several others. Those memories will never fade! Norman Floyd

skiffs6 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
skiffs6 said...

Wow this brings back so many memories. Thanks Norm for letting me know about this. The 3rd photo of the 6 fish i have seen many times along with many other photos of giants My Dad Ken Martin the tall guy in the middle had caught over 13 fish all giants with Charlie from the early 1960's thru the 1980's he brought many of his friends and got them all hooked as Norm has explained. When i was a little boy maybe 7 or 8 My dad took me with him on a trip with Charlie i was so excited and talked like crazy. My dad would tell me to be quite But Charlie scolded him and said Ken let the boy ask its how he will learn and i will never forget that. He was a great guy along with all the other captains still fishing and the ones who have gone before.

norm6969 said...

Sad to report the passing of Johnny Woods (Dixie II) of P'town, son of Bobby Woods (Dixie). He died of a heart attack fighting a tuna this past November. Google John Woods Dixie II.

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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.