Another Life: Will tuna-watching be the next big tourist attraction?

Michael Viney: The bluefins of the east Atlantic spawn in the Mediterranean and migrate to our western waters to feed on mackerel and herring

 Bluefin tuna: an ocean super-predator. Illustration: Michael Viney

Bluefin tuna: an ocean super-predator. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

The biggest fish I ever caught with rod, line and spinner was a pollack as long as my arm – well, nearly as long. I remember my excitement at the fierce drag on the line and the hunter’s delight at the flash of gold I was hauling up from the depths.

How it feels to hook a big Atlantic bluefin tuna, up to 1,500 pounds (who needs kilos?) and wrestle with it for an hour or more to tire it out and haul it within grasp beside the boat, I cannot imagine, nor much wish to.

This month, however, from any of 25 approved charter boats sailing out from the Wild Atlantic Way, any reputable and muscular sea angler can play Hemingway with the beautiful, powerful wild animal David Attenborough has called the ocean’s “ultimate fish”.

There are rules to it, of course, for this is the Tuna Chart programme of scientific catch-tag-and-release, run by the Marine Institute and Inland Fisheries Ireland, in partnership with the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

At the most basic, you can’t hoist the tuna up by the tail for a selfie and you can’t sell it to Japan for the price of a new kitchen. The rapid handling, measurement, tagging and release of the beast as it rides beside the boat is in the care of one’s authorised, trained and professional skipper, who has provided rods, reels and lines “of high specification” as well as knowing where to go.

In 2020, I am staggered to learn from the Marine Institute, no fewer than 685 bluefin tuna were tagged and released in this way, more than doubling the total of 2019, the programme’s first year.

Most were caught off Co Donegal and Co Cork and as many as 11 tuna were caught on a single trip, setting a new Irish record. John Brittain, an authorised skipper with 15 years’ experience who sails out from Cleggan in Connemara, reports catching tuna of “over 800lbs”.

Catch-and-release angling

The bluefins of the east Atlantic spawn in the Mediterranean and migrate to our western waters to feed on mackerel and herring. Their summer abundance off the west of Ireland has built up in recent years after overfishing reduced bluefins to a globally threatened species. Data from the tag-and-release programme is reported to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) to help guide future fishing quotas.

Irish fishermen have been denied inclusion in the quotas fixed by the EU since the 1990s and are quite incensed about it. Most of the quotas go to Mediterranean countries, but Ireland had no record of catching the bluefin. The marine minister, Charlie McConalogue, has told the Dáil that there is “no likelihood” another country would give up a share of its allocation to Ireland, even though ICCAT recommended an increase in the catch to 36,000 tonnes by 2020.

The revenue from angling for bluefin is potentially huge. There is the revenue from the authorised charter boats and community income from holiday packages and tackle suppliers. Across the Atlantic, where the western bluefins forage off the coast of Nova Scotia, a Canadian study of catch-and-release angling in 2014 concluded that “live-released bluefin have the potential to generate up to six times more revenue on a tonne per tonne basis than a commercially caught bluefin” (see Reeling in Revenue at ecologyaction.ca).

‘Fight time’

In the Canadian live-release fishery regulations, bluefin “hook-ups” are limited to one fish per trip, using rod and reel and baited “biodegradable barbless circle hooks”, with the big-eyed giant brought alongside within “45-60 minutes of ‘fight time’”.

The warm-blooded bluefin has evolved the ultimate hydrodynamic body shape. Driven by a streamlined, beating tail, its speed of attack is aided by retracting major fins into hollows in its flanks. As an ocean super-predator, it is as beautifully designed for its lifestyle as a jaguar on land.

Hooked through its bottom jaw, however, the need to force water through its outsize gills for extra oxygen and energy means that it must keep swimming forward or die. A long battle with the relentless drawing in of line can be exhausting. Canada’s fishery authorities accept a mortality of 3.6 per cent among bluefins after release.

There is, of course, a lobby that resists the catching of bluefins at all. Some see the ocean’s top predators as vital to its ecosystem. Others compare bluefins with admired but threatened “big game” terrestrial animals that are now rarely shot for sport. The UK’s Blue Planet Society suggests tourist trips to watch bluefins “leaping from the water as they chase schools of fish at the surface”.

Already a feature of eco-safaris off Cornwall, will tuna-watching be the next attraction on the Wild Atlantic Way?

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