ATLANTIC BEACH — With an increase in the U.S. bluefin tuna quota and an early appearance of large tunas off the Carteret County coast, signs are out there this might be a good bluefin tuna season.

Traditionally, bluefin tuna start showing up in North Carolina from mid-November through the end of January for the commercial fishery, though the recreational fishery can sometimes extend as far as April. While in recent years the tuna haven’t shown up until sometime in December, this year a Carteret County charter/headboat captain and his crew managed to catch the first tuna in the county before daybreak on Nov. 30.

Capt. Maurice Davis of the Capt. Stacy Fishing Center in Atlantic Beach said he was out on the water Nov. 29 to do some bottom fishing.

“We were the only ones out,” he said. “I saw one (bluefin tuna) jump out of the corner of my eye.”

That night, Capt. Davis and his crew set out again to see if they could hook a bluefin tuna. By 3 a.m. Nov. 30, they managed to hook a tuna that weighed in at over 400 pounds.

“The next day, there were more boats out there,” Capt. Davis said. “I guess they heard about the tuna.”

By the time the fish appeared to have moved on, Capt. Davis and his crew managed to land five bluefin tuna. The captain wasn’t surprised when the fish weren’t in the same spot they’d found them a few days later.

“The way these fish bite, they’ll bite hard for two to three days,” he said. “After that, it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll show up.”

The season’s not over yet, though, and Capt. Davis said the fish they’d been catching were big ones, between 400-500 pounds.

“It’s been many years since we’ve seen them that big,” the captain said, “We’ve also seen menhaden showing up; that’s a good sign.”

Menhaden are a baitfish that bluefin tuna feed on. Capt. Davis said seeing a lot of menhaden means there’s something to draw the tuna to the local waters.

In a similar way, the bluefin tuna have been drawing something to Carteret County – business. Capt. Davis said since the tuna have been showing up, business has picked up for bait and tackle shops; there’s been more people leasing berths at the local marinas and buying fuel for boats, as well.

“It’s been a good shot in the arm for the Carteret County economy,” the captain said.

Bluefin tuna are a highly prized fish, both recreationally and commercially. On the international seafood market, the tuna can sell for thousands of dollars for a single fish.

The tuna have been showing up in more places along North Carolina’s coast than just Carteret County. Randy Gregory, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries biologist, said Dec. 3 that unofficial reports put the state bluefin tuna landings at about 27 by that day.

“In years past, we’ve seen some in November,” Mr. Gregory said, “but it’s been two to three years since anyone’s landed bluefin tuna of quantity out here. They’re highly migratory, so even when the conditions are right, it’s not a guarantee they’ll be there.”

Mr. Gregory said the DMF has heard reports of bluefin tuna sightings off of Cape Lookout, Cape Fear and Wrightsville Beach.

This season Atlantic fishermen will have more tuna to catch. The National Marine Fisheries Service manages bluefin tuna nationally, while the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas manages them internationally.

Globally, Atlantic bluefin tuna are divided into two stocks; the smaller, western stock is fished in by the United States, Canada, Japan and Mexico. Mediterranean countries fish in the larger, eastern stock, although the two are known to co-mingle.

At its regular meeting in November, ICCAT increased the western stock quota from 1,750 metric tons to 2,000. Brad McHale, NMFS highly migratory species branch chief said that all four countries will be fishing out of this quota, “but the U.S. will get its piece of the pie.”

Some national bluefin tuna regulations will be adjusted this year, namely regulations on retaining bluefin tuna and how individual fishing vessel’s quotas will work. The NMFS released on Dec. 2 its final rule on Amendment 7 to the 2006 Consolidated Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan.

This amendment requires longline fishermen to keep all dead bluefin tuna they catch, rather than discard them over the side if they hook a bigger tuna. This requirement has been added in an effort to reduce waste.

“Now they must haul back all dead bluefin tuna,” Mr. McHale said, “which will count against that (vessel’s) individual quota, which is for the season.”

The individual commercial vessel quotas are another Amendment 7 change. While there are no individual fish possession limits, each licensed vessel will have an individual quota based on that vessel’s historic bluefin tuna landings. These quotas are divided into 3 tiers:

•    High tier – a seasonal quota of 1.6 metric tons.

•    Mid tier – a seasonal quota of 0.8 metric tons.

•    Low tier – a seasonal quota of 0.5 metric tons.

Mr. McHale said the historic landings for each licensed vessel has been calculated based on the ration of bluefin tuna caught incidentally to the amount of the vessel’s targeted species caught.

“If they had a low rate of bluefin tuna bycatch, they’d be put in the high tier,” he said. “If they had a high rate of bycatch, they’re in the low tier.”

In North Carolina, there are at least 18 longline vessels licensed to catch bluefin tuna commercially that list a port in North Carolina as their home. Mr. McHale said most of these vessels are in the high- and mid-quota tiers.

The minimum commercial size limit for bluefin tuna is 73 inches total length. Commercial fishermen must also have a federal bluefin tuna permit and a state commercial fishing license.

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

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