MOREHEAD CITY — As winter weather sets in, the season for Atlantic bluefin tuna has arrived along the North Carolina coast, and the early season has been good so far for at least two Carteret County charter businesses.
Bluefin tuna are a commercially valuable and highly sought-after fish, with individual fish selling for thousands of dollars on the international market. The fish are managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas in two stocks, the eastern stock and the western stock, though the two often intermingle. In the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the baseline annual quota for bluefin tuna is 1,247.86 metric tons; this quota is further divided into sub quotas based on types of gear. The general category, which covers commercial handgear, has a sub quota of 555.7 metric tons.
Bluefin tuna traditionally show up on the North Carolina coast in December through early winter, and according Fish Whistle Fishing Charters of Morehead City’s Capt. Mike Ajamian, as of Tuesday he’s caught four.
“This year, so far, has been off to a good start,” he said in an interview Tuesday with the News-Times. “There’ a good amount of fish out there.”
Capt. Ajamian landed one of his bluefin tuna solo, not an easy feat when the fish is bigger than himself. The captain said he caught it the night of Dec. 6 about 10 miles off of Atlantic Beach, fighting the fish from the tower of his boat.
“I harpooned him from the top deck,” he said, “25 feet in the air.”
When Capt. Ajamian got the tuna back to land, and after gutting it, the fish weighted about 509 pounds.
Capt. Ajamain isn’t the only local charter fisherman going after bluefin tuna in Carteret County. Chasin’ Tails Outdoors Bait & Tackle in Atlantic Beach has its own charter fleet, and sales consultant Mickey Patel told the News-Times Tuesday, so far, the season has been “phenomenal.”
“We’ve caught close to a dozen,” Mr. Patel said. “A lot of those (charter) guys have been catching them.”
Mr. Patel said he was a crewman with Capt. Jim Ellis Dec. 3 when they landed a bluefin tuna. He said they caught the fish at around 1 p.m. near the buoy in Beaufort Inlet.
Mr. Patel said one reason the tuna might be more numerous this season than in the past is due to more bait fish being offshore of North Carolina this season.
“Those fish are constantly on the move and eating,” he said, referring to bluefin tuna.
North Carolina is traditionally a hot spot for winter bluefin tuna fishing. NMFS spokesperson Kate Goggin said during the 2020 January to March period, nearly all bluefin tuna landed in the general category were landed in North Carolina.
“The December fishing year has only just begun,” Ms. Goggin said. “In the last few years, substantial December landings have occurred both in North Carolina and Massachusetts.”
The NMFS manages the U.S. tuna quota by time periods, and the 2020 December quota this year is 28.9 metric tons.
While some of the sub quotas have been adjusted in the U.S. in recent years, Ms. Goggin said the U.S. quota has remained 1,237.86 metric tons since 2018. Outside of adjustments to the sub quotas from year-to-year, however, there haven’t been any significant changes in bluefin tuna management.
Ms. Goggin said, however, the fisheries service is in the process of major rulemaking with a proposed amendment to bluefin tuna management.
“In May 2019, NOAA Fisheries presented an Amendment 13 issues/options or ‘scoping’ paper regarding the future management of bluefin tuna,” she said. “Among other issues, this included discontinuation of the purse seine category and re-allocation of its quote to other categories, modification of the current category allocations and modification of the general category sub quota allocations and/or time periods.”
According to the scoping document issued for Amendment 13, the purse seine category has the third-largest sub quota at 219.5 metric tons, just after the angling sub quota of 232.4 metric tons. The amendment development process is expected to take approximately two years.
“The proposed rule and supplemental analyses may be released in the spring or summer of 2021,” Ms. Goggin said.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.