It's an aerial picture of a school of giant bluefin tuna, swimming around the Gulf of Maine. The Large Pelagics Research Center let me borrow it, since I talked with a research director there, Molly Lutcavage, for the radio today.
It's really a pretty amazing idea, that the tuna are so big, and stand out from the ocean so clearly, that someone flying around in a plane could just snap! take a picture and there they are. Like little tadpole-Cheerios, swimming around in the big blue, milky sea.
Lutcavage, along with the New England Aquarium and her group of researchers, studied tuna this way for three years, using spotter pilots from the fishing industry. The spotter pilots' job was to fly around looking for big schools of tuna, and then call the boat captains so they could rev up their engines, grab their nets or harpoons, and head out.
It used to be that only harpoon boats and purse seiners used pilots, but when they started flying for boats with general category licenses, for example rod and reel, whoever got to the fish first could catch most of the quota. In other words, it was first come first serve, and some boats lost out. As you might imagine, this didn't go over very well with a lot of fishermen, and the spotter pilots became so controversial in the late 90s that Lutcavage had to stop using them. Instead, she started tracking giant bluefin with tags.
When she did, she noticed the same thing the fishermen have been noticing: there are a lot fewer big fish around these days, and a lot more juveniles in Cape Cod Bay. The giants are out there, she says, it's just that they're bypassing the whole Gulf of Maine, heading up to Canada or hanging out places like Georges Banks instead.
To try and figure out why, Lutcavage is looking into all kinds of things. Their reproductive cycles, where they spawn, how they interact with their prey. The Center even has a program called Tag a Tiny, aimed at studying the juveniles themselves. The tags track the little tunas' geographic locations, and what the depth and temperature of the water they're swimming in is like. Every little bit of information helps.
If you're interested in knowing more, it's well worth checking out all of the links (in purple) above. Because even though we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding and managing tuna, Lutcavage and her team are learning more by the day.
I, for one, am hoping we understand enough soon enough that tuna sashimi will never be a distant dream. That's one treat I'd rather not do without.
P.S. All photos here are courtesy of the Large Pelagics Research Center in Durham, New Hampshire. Thank you so, so much!