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Channel Islands flatfish
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
How to make a reef from a rig

The bluefin enigma
Where do they go? Why are they here now? Those are the bluefin questions that come to mind for anglers and ichthyologists alike. Back in the late 1970s and ‘80s we would occasionally encounter them.

ONE PICTURE TELLS many tales. Dr. Barbara Block shows data from 400 bluefin tuna. The first story is these fish spend most of their time off our coast, although often far offshore. A second is they can travel hard and fast. Each dot is a day, 10-plus knots 24-7 at times. A third is a huge fraction are caught. Half the tags put out came back.

When fishing albacore, we might spot a school just ripping up the surface of the water, a tight ball. Unlike albacore they hung tightly together, an easy target for the purse seine, but a difficult one for us. They seldom bit, and when we hooked any larger than football sized, it ruined us.

Sometimes 20-pound and under fish would show up right along the coast, right in half-day territory. Same deal. I can remember Irv Grisbeck throwing the iron on a dense school and snagging one in the back. It ripped right down to the tail and stuck. A decade later, Rodger Briddle did the same on a twilight trip.

Inshore like this, the purse seine fleet had an aerial crystal ball, and in less than 12 hours would be on them. Inside 48 hours, the schools would break up, then be gone. We figured bluefin were like that, here today, gone tomorrow.

Then in the first week of November, 1988, a couple seasons before the squid market busted loose, the by-then rag-tag, nearly destitute San Pedro seiner fleet hit the jackpot. The once regal San Pedro seine fishery had devolved to chasing chicken food — mackerel, anchovies and sometimes bonito. A spotter pilot found monster bluefin casting glowing trails in nighttime phosphor­escent seas just seaward of the gap between Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands. They weighed in at 300 to over 600 pounds.

The seiners were on them. We watched 400 pounders being hoisted, weighed and loaded into refrigerated trucks. As the week went on, the fish crossing the dock seemed ever larger, 600, 700 pounders even.

Capt. Donny Hedden and I got the idea to take our biggest gear, Penn 9/0s loaded with 100-pound mono on top of commercial rockcod Dacron, basically cod rods on steroids, and head offshore in his 26-foot Seaways skiff Kerry Cathleen.

We drifted in the dark for hours. In the distance, a few lights were tucked into the lee coves at Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz. It was dead. About midnight the planes showed up, then the boats came out and it was on. The Sea Queen made a set and we went over to check it out.

There was splashing, whooping and hollering as the corks closed in. Two huge fish blew clear through the seine, sending arcs of water arching over the wheelhouse.

A third was tail roped, bled and hoisted on deck. They lowered its head onto the deck. It came to life and they lifted it back up a foot or two. It sent the entire mast and both booms flopping like twigs about to snap. This 700 pounder was the small one.

The next two of the five they had encircled were huge, like watching livestock being loaded through the chute. After that, Donny and I knew we weren’t bothering to put our gear back out. It now looked ridiculous, pitiful lying there in the bottom of the boat. We heard later, those two larger tuna had topped a thousand pounds.

Looking farther back, 1910-1920, it was bluefin and newly diesel powered boats that had started the seine fishery. Anglers like Dr. Charles Holder and Zane Grey fished 100 and 200 pounders close to Catalina Island — rod and reel and kite. By the early ’20s, Grey was complaining about competition from the seine fleet.

For the next 90 years, whenever bluefin were in the area, seiners were in the mix. In U.S. waters, the fish would occasionally show briefly, then be gone.

Just a few years ago, after reaching record prices, the market vaporized and conservation pressures mounted. A few commercial catches were made and sold for pennies. Seiners left the schools to us sporties. We learned locally how to target the big ones as Grey had, borrowing from what the long range and Puerto Vallarta boats had to teach us.

The following season strict U.S. commercial quotas were implemented. Those quotas were caught inside a week’s seining, once again leaving the foamers to us sporties to pick from for months. And they stayed! Each of the past three seasons the fish have stayed or returned, with the biggest ones raising the bar another year bigger.

This violated what we thought we knew about the Pacific bluefin. Previously the understanding had been, once they reached around 100 pounds, they left for the West Pacific and remained there as adults.

Most people missed Dr. Barbara Block’s presentation at the Long Beach Fred Hall Show earlier this month. In scientific circles, she is known as the front runner in bluefin tuna research. They are her critter, and she is driven to understand them. Those monsters in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Outer Bay exhibit are her fish, along with others in Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, across the yard from it.

A great presenter, she combined her tagging results with those of many others globally and painted a much more diverse life history for bluefin. She suspects the fish mature later and larger than previously thought.

In addition, by looking at her presentation slides, it appeared bluefin actually live and feed here in the East Pacific, and may simply run to the west to spawn — often a death sentence by longline and net for them. During their first year of life, most that make it migrate here to feed. They’re the 12 to 18 pounders.

But it’s clear, what we recreational anglers see within a few tens of miles of the coastline is just the tip of the iceberg. The fish, especially larger fish, spend a lot of time 200, 300 miles or more offshore. Tag data showed fish far down the Baja coast, all the way up to Washington State.

Dr. Block has two scientific tagging excursions with spots for anglers available. One is aboard the Shogun. Anglers catch tuna which are tagged and released. Costs are similar to any long range trip. The other heads to Canada to tag the Atlantic’s giants.

Anglers can also participate by sponsoring a satellite tag with TAG A Giant or IGMR. If you’re interested, she can be reached at bblock@Stanford.edu The Block Lab website is Stanfordblocklab.org.

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.

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