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Bigger Bluefin, But Lower Numbers In East Coast Fisheries

The bluefin tuna season is in full swing, and the early returns are a mixed study, with good news regarding the size of the available fish against lower numbers of actual fish landed.

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts’ Gloucester-based marine research center and at least one local tuna seller agree that the anecdotal and statistical realities so far in the 2013 season indicate lower catch rates than in years past.

The good news, however, is that those lower catch rates seem to be offset by larger fish swimming in larger schools than the industry has seen in the past few years.

“The availability of really big fish seems to be higher than the last couple years,” said Molly Lutcavage, director and research professor at UMass’ Large Pelagics Research Center at Hodgkins Cove. “That’s confirmed by the fact that one of the purse seines made their first multiple set since probably 2004.”

Lutcavage said spotter-plane pilots also have reported seeing “much larger schools of large fish” than they have in years.

“That perspective is from multiple pilots flying over larger areas,” Lutcavage said.

The evidence that this year’s stock includes larger fish also was strengthened by the fact that one local tuna captain recently hauled in a bluefin that weighed 920 pounds, as confirmed in an earlier email to The Times from P.J. Mead, owner of Compass Seafood in Gloucester, a primary grader, processor and seller of tuna.

That prized fish was hauled in on a charter trip by Capt. Kevin Leonowert, whose boat The Huntress is part of the “Wicked Tuna” fleet featured on National Geographic TV’s acclaimed reality series.

“This year the overall size is bigger,” Mead said Wednesday. “We’ve been averaging over 300 pounds already, and that’s sure to increase as the season continues.”

Mead said the population of larger fish this year might speak to the migratory nature of the tuna. “They do swim all over the different oceans,” Mead said.

Lutcavage concurred, saying researchers now have evidence of tuna tagged in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Canada in 2011 entering the Gulf of Maine in June and July.

While the size is up, the number of catches appears to be down, said both Lutcavage and Mead.

“The harpoon numbers especially are down from last year,” Mead said. “One of the reasons is we had a lot of poor weather in June and July.”

The most recent figures from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service show preliminary commercial landings in the 2013 season of 110.4 metric tons in the general category, with harpoon landings at 11 metric tons and the purse seine landings at 14.3 metric tons.

The NMFS figures show that the longline north and south categories are closed, with 24.6 metric tons and 33.7 metric tons landed, respectively. The longline category has landed 1 metric ton in the Northeast Distant restricted area.

In 2012, according to the NMFS, there were 456.2 tons landed in the general category, with 17.2 metric tons in the harpoon category, a total of 89.5 metric tons landed in the longline categories and 1.7 metric tons in the purse seine category.

Mead said this season has produced varying quality of tuna, which has led to wide spectrum of wandering prices.

“Every given day is different, every fish is different,” Mead said. “We’ve had some very strong prices in Japan, as high as $27 or $28 per pound return to the boats. Those are the best of the best.

“We’ve had plenty of $5 and $10 [per pound return to the boats] fish, as well.”