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Fishermen report tuna season off to a slow start

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Posted: Saturday, December 29, 2018 11:55 pm

MOREHEAD CITY — The bluefin tuna season is underway in North Carolina, and more than 13 metric tons have already been landed, most of it in Carteret County.

However, several local seafood dealers and commercial fishermen have said the season’s actually been rather poor so far, but there’s still time to catch more tuna.

Morehead City seafood dealer Donald Diehl said the season has been “not really that good.” Mr. Diehl is a dealer that specializes in bluefin tuna, representing International Lobster and Maguro, a company based in Japan, where there’s a huge market for bluefin tuna.

“The weather’s played a big part,” Mr. Diehl said. “We (commercial fishermen) have landed about 30 fish in Morehead City. The fish are there, but it’s been a slow bite. We would’ve liked to catch about 100 fish, but Mother Nature’s thrown us a couple curves with the weather.”

Some fishermen are happy with the season so far, however. Freelance commercial fishing license holder Jim Ellis of Goldsboro said he and his crew – Mickey Patel of Peletier, Adam Clark of Emerald Isle and Joe Bendis of Clayton — went out the first two weeks of December and managed to catch three bluefin tuna, two of which were big enough to bring to the dock.

“The first one we caught was a small fish we released,” Mr. Ellis said. “The first one (we brought in) was 657 pounds. The second one we caught on my dad’s birthday. It was 690 pounds.”

Both fish Mr. Ellis and his crew brought in were more than 100 inches in length. Mr. Ellis said he thinks this season will be a good one overall.

“When they opened the season back up, there were a lot of people hooking up (bluefin tuna), but a lot of them were shaking loose (from the line),” he said. “There’s not as many people fishing for them now. It seems like the first two weeks of December were prime time.”

Each year, commercial fishermen eagerly await the appearance of bluefin tuna off the North Carolina coast in the late fall. The tuna is a highly valued species, with individual fish selling for several thousand dollars at market. Bluefin tuna are a highly migratory species, meaning they move frequently. They’re most often seen off the North Carolina coast in late fall through the winter. Tuna are managed in state waters, located up to 3 miles offshore, and federal waters, located between 3-200 miles offshore, by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The fisheries service bases its regulations off guidance provided by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.

Mr. Diehl said he’s been involved with the bluefin tuna fishery since 1998, when fisheries managers first allowed them to be commercially harvested.

“The biggest one landed so far (this season) has been 980 pounds,” he said. “The market prices have been good, averaging around $8-14 per pound.”

Homer Smith Seafood Inc. seafood dealer Tony Frost Jr., however, didn’t seem pleased with the season. He said he thinks the it’s been a poor one, and that it’s been like this since about 2002.

“They don’t migrate here anymore and we don’t know why,” Mr. Frost said. “We’ve only had a few scattered fish since Dec. 1.”

The slow start to the season appears to be coastwide for North Carolina. N.C. Fisheries Association President Glenn Skinner said he’s spoken with marine biologist Jess Hawkins, a former member of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission. The association is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the state seafood industry.  

“Jess Hawkins said he’s heard people are catching about one (tuna) per week,” Mr. Skinner said, “so it (the season) isn’t very active. For our area (Carteret County), that’s not unusual.”

While tuna haven’t been landed in the numbers fishermen and dealers would like to see, Mr. Diehl said there’s still a chance for a good season. He said in past years the fish haven’t shown up until January, so landing bluefin tuna in December means there’s still time before the tuna usually move on from North Carolina’s coast, which usually happens in late March.

Meanwhile, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Public Information Officer Patricia Smith said that this year, according to information gathered by state fisheries managers, a “small pulse” of bluefin tuna showed up in Carteret County right after Thanksgiving.

“That’s the same time and location they started to show up in 2017 and 2015,” she said. “The prevailing trend has been to have a small pulse of bluefin tuna in the Carteret County region between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with most of the North Carolina bluefin tuna recreational landings occurring in Dare County in February, March and April of each year.”

Bluefin tuna are managed by quotas. This year, the December general category bluefin tuna subquota for the Atlantic Coast is 50 metric tons.

Ms. Smith said as of Dec. 17, 13.3 tons have been landed, most of them in Carteret County.

“The December 2018 subquota closes on (Monday) Dec. 31, and the January 2019 subquota (January through Sunday, March 31), opens (Tuesday) Jan. 1,” she said.

According to a press release from the NMFS, as of Dec. 21, the January general category bluefin tuna subquota will be 49 metric tons. This is a result of the fisheries service transferring 19.5 metric tons of the remaining December subquota to the January subquota.

The fisheries service said although it’s called the “January” subquota, bluefin tuna may be harvested from it until the subquota is reached or March 31, whichever comes first.

“This adjustment is intended to provide a reasonable opportunity to harvest the U.S. bluefin tuna quota without exceeding it,” the fisheries service said, “while maintaining an equitable distribution of fishing opportunities, help achieve optimum yield in the bluefin tuna fishery and collect a broad range of data for stock monitoring purposes.”

In the bluefin tuna general category January subquota, the daily retention limit for permitted commercial vessels and charter/headboats will be one large, medium or giant bluefin tuna (measuring 73 inches or greater) per vessel per day/trip.

Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email mike@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.

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