Skip to main content

The Hottest Blood

ISSUE:  Summer 2011

Journeys of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

A school of bluefin tuna.
Fishermen who work the Gulf of Maine say that bluefin tuna used to grow to more than a thousand pounds and travel in groups of fewer than ten. Now they report seeing schools of hundreds of smaller fish.

They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.

—D. H. Lawrence,
“Whales Weep Not!”

Under the Miami skyline, beneath bits of trash collected at the margin of the Florida current, a tiny female creature struggles on a warm, moonless night in April. She is only six millimeters long, opaque, with a head larger than her body. Electric impulses run down her developing spinal cord, twitching her trunk and tail side to side, side to side, in a motion that won’t stop until she dies. But the motion is futile. Her tiny body is being flushed out of the Gulf of Mexico through the Straits of Florida and into the broader Atlantic, where, with luck, she will grow to be a giant bluefin tuna.

For now, she lives as a drifter, carried on the sea’s currents. A drop in salinity or a change in temperature would kill her, stunting the development of her delicate musculature, leaving her paralyzed. All around, diatoms, microscopic photosynthetic plankton, emit light as a defense when excited. Their living and dying traces the motion of the sea in explosions of color. Overhead, near the surface, a school of anchovies streaks through the water. Six inches long, they dwarf the tuna larvae, gulping mouthfuls of tiny crustaceans and krill. By the end of the year they will be her main prey; for now they remain her predator.

In the next few days she will develop the complete skeletal structure of a mature bluefin. In a week, she will look like a miniature of the thousand pounders that rove the world over, foreshadowing her mature shape and stature. At twenty-five days, she will become social. With the development of her cartoonishly large eyes, she will begin to school with other tuna larvae. With her adapted fins, her swimming will become fine-tuned; she will learn the subtle art of manipulating the sea’s fluid motions. No longer subject to the current’s arbitrary flows, she will swim as a highly mobile predator—but the dangers will hardly be over.

Bluefin tuna swimming in the ocean.
In recent years, many scientists have feared bluefin tuna were being fished to extinction, but new research suggests that the population dynamics may be more complex.

In recent years, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, has risen to fame as an icon of overfishing and the need for marine conservation. If a proposal filed last May by the Center for Biological Diversity is accepted, bluefin will gain the same protection under the Endangered Species Act as the North Atlantic right whale, the Bengal tiger, and the African elephant. But the bluefin’s story is anything but straightforward.

Bluefin are the subject of a multi-million dollar industry driven to fulfill the ever-growing demand for high-end sushi in Japan, the United States, China, and Europe. In 2007, rampant illegal and unregulated fishing resulted in nearly 60,000 tonnes of bluefin being taken from the Atlantic—almost double the quota set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Intense pressure has forced ICCAT to cut quotas by more than half since 2007, a move that many believe will ensure the bluefin’s future. Others, including many environmental groups, aren’t convinced and still believe the bluefin are in danger of extinction.

Where on this spectrum the bluefin actually falls is impossible to pinpoint. Estimating the number of tuna in the vast Atlantic is hard enough, but studies are quickly politicized and often interpreted to satisfy agendas on both sides of the argument. ICCAT admits that the stock of bluefin that spawn in the western half of the Atlantic could range anywhere from healthy to rapidly declining—the estimates as shifting and inexact as the sea itself.

Alt text.
Captain Bill “Brownie” Brown’s thirty-five-foot boat, the Gillian Anne, pushes out of the calm waters of Gloucester Harbor. Jay Albert

Dawn comes slowly over the open ocean, taking its time, patiently chasing the dark of night back over the western horizon. Fishermen call it graylight, that time between the black and sunrise.

Captain Bill “Brownie” Brown sits placidly at the helm of the F. V. Gillian Anne, smoking the stub of a cigarette and sipping the first of many Redbulls. The cigarette glows ominously in the dim, smoke-filled wheelhouse. Bill leans back in the captain’s chair, stroking his thick handlebar mustache as he guides the boat out of the shelter of Gloucester Harbor, into the maze of underwater trenches, plateaus, and rises that make the Gulf of Maine one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world.

Outside, a four-foot sea is running, leftovers of a storm system that passed earlier in the week, causing the thirty-five foot Gillian Anne to shudder and pitch as she skims across the water at seventeen knots. Spray, suspended in midair, pelts the windshield as the bow breaks through the waves.

It’s a late September morning, calm by fishermen’s standards. A high-pressure system has just moved in from Canada, bringing stable weather and the first faint outlines of cirrus clouds in the eastern sky. We’re steaming north-northwest to the Flag, an area of underwater hills and valleys inside of Jefferies Ledge, twenty miles north of Gloucester, Massachusetts, fourteen or so miles from the entrance of Portsmouth Harbor.

Bill, gregarious, in his late fifties, wears a torn, bloodstained sweatshirt cut off at the elbows and collar to keep from tangling in the gear. He has a laugh that fills the wheelhouse and a broad lopsided smile that always forces one eye closed. He refers to everyone as “kid”—over the radio, the phone, and along the docks. It’s rumored he had a temper in his younger days, but thirty years sobriety and so many seasons on the water seem to have mellowed him, his temper replaced by a devastating silence when frustrated. Bill invited me aboard to join his crew for the remainder of the fall season, but, in the two weeks I’ve been on the Gillian Anne, we haven’t had a strike.

An hour out the telltale spout of a humpback whale appears on the horizon. Flocks of Wilson Storm Petrels, fist-sized black seabirds, dance across the surface snatching plankton in their beaks. Overhead, Herring Gulls, Arctic Terns, Shearwaters, and the Broad-winged Gannet glide on morning thermals, searching, as Bill is, for life.

As we cruise, Bill keeps up a running commentary on each piece of bottom we cross. What the uninitiated might view as a one-dimensional, featureless expanse, he sees as a contoured landscape. After more than forty years of fishing, he knows the location and name of every rise and valley. “See that gillnetter?” he says, pointing to a boat on the eastern horizon. “That’s the mussel bed. Spent quite a few years working my nets over there.” Bluehill, the Bottom of Jefferies, the Cove, the Fingers, Halfway Hump, the 405—this is Bill’s office.

“There she is, kid,” he says, announcing our arrival at the Flag. Below us, the sea floor rises dramatically, forming what fishermen call an edge. Life in the ocean is a simple equation: sunlight, nutrient-rich water, and dissolved oxygen. But the sea is stratified. Nutrients are typically locked under the thermocline—the depth in the water column where the temperature decreases quickest. Picture a layer cake, each layer a dynamic fluid, sheering and flowing over each other but rarely mixing. The surface where the majority of life exists makes up only the smallest top layer, a sheen of oil in a bucket of water. As life carries out its cycle of birthing, eating, and dying, it uses the sun’s energy to consume the nutrients of the surface layer, while its wastes, what scientists refer to as marine snow, drift in an endless procession below the thermocline.

Fortunately, these nutrients are not locked away forever. Along the borders of the world’s continents and a few confined areas of the open sea, deep waters are forced to the surface in what is known as upwelling. Some areas are more productive than others, the Gulf of Maine one of the most. The upward flow of cold, nutrient-rich water rolling onto the shelf between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia spurs blooms of phytoplankton so profuse they can be photographed from space. The Flag, like many of the humps and rises in the underwater moonscape of the Gulf of Maine, concentrates this life.

Here Bill hopes to find the giant bluefin tuna. Although he doesn’t say as much, he, more than so many others, intuits this cycle of productivity. The blooms of phytoplankton support the entire food chain of the open ocean, attracting herring, sand eels, and other species whose oily, fatty composition sustains the giant bluefin.

It takes twenty minutes to locate the best piece of bottom. He’s obsessive about this, setting the anchor, judging the lay of the boat, hauling it, and resetting until he’s satisfied. “Thirty-eight fathom. That’s the magic number, kid,” he says with a smile. “Lets go to work.” He heads below to pull out the rods.

Each rod is eight feet in length and as thick as the handle of a baseball bat. Attached is a goldplated reel the size of a car battery, filled with more than five hundred yards of line capable of withstanding extreme forces. At the end of the line, a small hook is crimped to a fluorocarbon leader via a small metal sleeve that pinches the line back on itself. The fluorocarbon is abrasion resistant and practically invisible in the water. While the gear is built to withstand the abuse of thousand-pound fish, bluefin regularly destroy it. Earlier in the season, Bill broke off two fish in a row, snapping the 220-pound leader cleanly. His son, B. G. Brown, snapped a rod in half a few weeks before, fighting a fish in a heavy sea. There’s even one story of a bluefin that ripped the stainless steel rod holder right out of the boat’s fiberglass rail.

Using the dip net, Bill captures a ten-inch iridescent herring from the Gillian Anne’s livewell. Earlier we had stopped and set a small gillnet, capturing herring, whiting, and other bait fish, which Bill has kept alive in a recirculating tank on deck. Holding the flipping bait in his right hand, his left threads the hook through the meat of the herring’s back, behind the dorsal fin. Using his arms as a measurement he methodically lowers the bait. Twenty fathom, fifteen, thirteen—the number changes according to the day’s conditions. To maintain the correct depth, he ties a yellow balloon to the line and floats the whole assemblage thirty yards off the boat.

For the next rod Bill chooses a twenty-inch long whiting with an iridescent belly and mottled brown shoulder. The whiting’s swim bladder has expanded due to the change in pressure, and now protrudes grossly like a flesh colored balloon from its mouth and anus. Squeezing the fish, Bill bares his teeth and bites the bladder. I can hear the hiss as the air escapes and the whiting flaps in relief. A needle that could have handily done the job sits only inches from Bill’s hand.

Half an hour later, three yellow balloons bob gently in the waves. Bill settles down in the captain’s chair to watch the sounder and tears the plastic off his second pack of cigarettes. The waiting game has begun.

Bill has been fishing for bluefin out of Gloucester since the 1960s. Up until recently, he spent his winters and springs setting gillnets for groundfish. Summer and fall, however, were reserved for bluefin. “It gives us a break from a long winter’s work setting the nets,” he says of chasing tuna. “It’s our chance to have a little fun.” The problem has always been that bluefin are unreliable and the money inconsistent at best. A single bluefin may sell for more than $5,000 (Bill’s best, a fish caught in the early 1990s, sold at just over $20,000), but often the costs of fuel, bait, and boat maintenance outweigh the benefit.

During the best years, Bill says he could count on catching an average of twenty-five fish a season, yielding a gross income of around $100,000. After costs, pay for the crew, and boat upkeep, there was still a tidy sum left over for six months work. But in recent years the economics have taken a turn for the worse. In 2009, Bill landed eight fish. This season, he caught four in July and early August but was already behind due to rising expenses. Furthermore, the quality (coloration, fat content, girth) and therefore price of fish has dropped over the last decade. While certain fish caught in Japanese waters have made headlines, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, bluefin captured recently in the US rarely sell for more than $10,000. But it’s not just the size of the fish. “We didn’t have to go nearly as far to catch bluefin in the 1960s and ’70s,” Bill says, “no more than a few miles past Thatcher’s Island. But they were mostly large fish. Didn’t see all the small ones like we do now.”

Dave Linney, a captain from Cape Neddick, Maine, has told me much the same thing: “We didn’t see the huge schools of fish back then. Most were bunches of three to seven fish, a bunch of twenty was massive. Now we see schools of hundreds of smaller fish all piled up and rolling on each other.” While 2003 to 2007 were very poor years for the US commercial fleet, the Gulf of Maine was filled with small fish under the legal commercial limit of seventy-three inches, the result of what some scientists believe was an inordinately successful spawn in 2003. Not since the mid-1950s had these small fish been seen in the Gulf of Maine, raising hopes for the future of the stocks. George Purmont, a pilot who has spent almost forty years flying from the Bahamas to Canadian waters spotting tuna for the last of the US purse seine fleet, is more cautious. “Just because the fish are prevalent in one area doesn’t mean that they are prevalent all along their range,” he says. “Northern fishermen aren’t talking about the lack of small fish in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.”

Many agreed that the dip in US landings and the inability of the US to meet its quota from 2003 to 2007 signaled that the bluefin population was on the verge of collapse. Yet research by Dr. Walter Golet, a marine biologist with the University of Massachusetts Large Pelagics Research Center, reveals that the population dynamics may be more complex. Analyzing captain’s logbooks since the early 1970s, Golet concluded that the generalized location of catches has moved over two hundred miles to the east and north in the last forty years, suggesting that the decline in landings may have been a function of reduced accessibility. Perhaps catches were down not because there were fewer tuna, but because the greatest proportion of the population has moved outside of the range of the US’s small-boat, rod-and-reel fleet.

In Hudson Canyon, seventy-five miles off the coast of New York City, a thousand bluefin loll at the surface, digesting in the midday heat after a heavy feed that morning. The school is moving east-southeast at four knots, a disorganized mass, flowing like a flock of sparrows just under the sea’s surface. In their midst, almost indistinguishable from her cohort, swims the former larvae cast off in the Florida current five years earlier, turning at one moment on her side, flashing as fishermen say, then darting gracefully through the school without so much as brushing her companions.

Four feet long, weighing almost seventy pounds, she shows few signs of her vulnerable beginnings. Shaped like a big football, she is capable of swimming more than thirty miles per hour. The blurringly fast strokes of her tail are exact—and a matter of life or death for, like other tunas and many sharks, she is an obligate ram ventilator. Only by swimming does water pass over her gills, where dissolved oxygen diffuses into her bloodstream.

A school of baitfish a few hundred yards away sends vibrating pressure waves through the water. The bluefin school organizes. Vertical bars of iridescent blue begin to flash along her sides. These bars are typically more prevalent in younger fish and begin to fade as she matures. But they will never disappear completely, appearing throughout her life during moments of excitement. The bluefin converge on the large mass of sand eels, thin translucent prey, swirling in a gyre around the baits, consolidating them into a tight ball. The bluefin drive the bait toward the surface, where all organization dissolves. Sand eels attempting to escape jump from the water in sheets, landing like rain. The school rushes through the center of the dissolving ball of sand eels, rocketing out of the sea, causing a flurry of whitewater. The chaos does not cease until the last sand eel is consumed.

The school moves as one, but it is not homogenous. Around her in the tumult of the feed, fish born in the warm waters of the Mediterranean mix freely, acting as a single coordinated school, with the bluefin born in the western Atlantic. Scientists disagree on what percentage of fish along the US seaboard may have originated in the Mediterranean, and estimates range as wide as 4 percent to 83 percent. Recent studies, however, estimate that possibly 50 percent of small and medium-sized bluefin (those less than eight years old) found along the US originated on the other side of the Atlantic.

These largely unknown levels of mixing are intensely problematic to managing the stock. Scientists have known since the 1960s that bluefin regularly cross and recross the Atlantic basin, but ICCAT continues to this day to manage the Atlantic bluefin as two separate populations divided down the center of the Atlantic Ocean. Traditionally, it was believed that western origin fish migrated up the coast of the US, while fish born in the Mediterranean migrated north along the coasts of Spain and France, with some mixing across the mid-Atlantic. Tagging studies are beginning to show that these traditional migrations are oversimplifications, that separate segments of the bluefin populations display different patterns and that these patterns shift with age. Scientists have pinpointed particular forage areas, the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and the Grand Banks, hypothesizing that a particular group of fish return to each area year after year. In the Mediterranean genetic evidence suggests that there may in fact be two “isolated” classes of fish, a resident population and a migratory population, that pass through the Straits of Gibraltar each season to forage in the broader Atlantic.

Many no longer consider the Atlantic bluefin a population at all but a metapopulation composed of many related, intermingling yet ecologically diverse subgroups, called contingents. The bluefin, it seems, may act like a pelagic version of the salmon, returning to specific areas to spawn then separating into groupings to utilize different prey resources and feeding areas. The population is, as scientists would say, “patchy,” with individual contingents blinking into and out of existence constantly, a seemingly impossible situation for international management.

Since the 1990s, however, advances in tagging technology have made it possible to follow bluefin under the waves, recording their every movement. Now pop-up satellite archival tags (PSATs) are implanted into bluefin and record depth, temperature, and light levels for a preprogrammed amount of time (up to eighteen months in some cases), before detaching, floating to the surface, and uploading their data via satellite. PSATs allow researchers to examine the depth and temperature preferences of fish on an extremely fine scale, answering questions on feeding and how fish cope with changes in temperature. Furthermore, using the light data and a complicated algorithmic model, scientists can estimate the fish’s location to within sixty miles with a high level of confidence.

PSATs have revolutionized the study of large pelagic species. Dr. Molly Lutcavage, director of the Large Pelagics Research Center, has deployed PSATs on bluefin for over fifteen years and hopes these tags will inform a new era of fisheries management. “It’s critical that we don’t rely solely on fisheries-dependent data,” she says, citing the numerous biases and problems associated with studying bluefin only through catch records. “We need to focus on establishing fisheries-independent assessments, such as tagging studies, aerial surveys, and other techniques.” Lutcavage believes that this may be be the only chance we have of unraveling the bluefin’s complexity.

Ah, there’s one,” Bill shouts from the wheelhouse, rousting me from the cooler where I’ve been sitting in the stern, watching the rods. The depth sounder shows a deep red hook at fifteen fathoms.

Bill jumps from the wheelhouse, scampering from rod to rod, hauling in lines, and re-rigging baits. Ten minutes pass. Another fish joins the first, streaking across the back of the boat but ignoring the live herring. The screen of the sounder is now crosshatched with the deep red marks of the tuna. Bill rigs dead baits and chunk baits, carefully hiding the hook with a surgeon’s precision, but nothing works.

A crew of fishermen hoists a giant bluefin tuna aboard their boat.
A crew of fishermen hoists a giant bluefin tuna aboard their boat. A bluefin can become so hot as it struggles against capture that it can literally cook itself; to avoid this, fishermen will rake the fish’s gills and bleed it out.

Three hundred yards off our port side on another boat, a reel screams, the alarm of its drag screeching as the fish dumps line. Even from this distance, I can see the rod double over. “They’re on,” Bill says.

Everything turns to motion on the other boat. The captain fires the engine, leaving a puff of black smoke across the water, while the mate scurries around readying the deck for the fight.

For forty-five minutes they battle the fish off our stern, the boat’s forty-foot hulk often dragged backward through the water. The mate sits with one leg over the rail. With his gloved left hand he grabs the line ahead of the reel, pulling it down toward the spool as his right turns the handle a single rotation. After her initial few runs, the tuna dives deep, laying on her side and swimming in a large-rotating circle. The death spiral, fishermen call it. Slowly the mate reels her to the surface.

When he sees color, the captain runs from the helm to harpoon, or dart, the fish. Taking a twelve-foot long metal pole from under the gunwale he aims, careful not to hit the stomach, the location of the highest quality meat. Equipped with an arrow-shaped bronze head spliced to a nylon line, the harpoon is a first step in killing the giant bluefin. The captain carefully watches the pattern of the fish’s circles, waiting, timing the throw. As it reaches the zenith of its spiral, he releases. Blood pours into the water. The fish sounds but can’t escape the pressure of the dart and the fishing line. The fight is over.

The Tsukiji fish market. Here, frozen bluefin tuna arranged in rows on the ground are being auctioned.
The ever-growing demand for high-end sushi has created a multi-million dollar industry in tuna fishing. Bluefin caught all over the world are flown to the Tsukiji fish market, near Tokyo, where they are flash-frozen and auctioned the following morning at 5:20 a.m.
The Gillian Anne disappears in troughs and breaks through swells as she presses ahead through rough seas.
The Gillian Anne disappears in troughs and breaks through swells as she presses ahead through rough seas.Jay Albert

Bill and I watch as they tie a rope around its tail. I can see Bill’s frustration in his face. Their day, not ours. We watch as they tow the fish backward, using the harpoon shaft to slice its engorged gills. Bluefin are endothermic—capable of producing their own heat. During the stress of capture they can become so hot they literally cook themselves, a phenomenon that buyers call “burn.” This can only be avoided by raking the freshly caught fish’s gills and bleeding it out.

Later, I watch as they hoist the bluefin aboard using a davit and pulley. Bill returns to his post at the helm, lighting one cigarette off the next. On the other boat, the mate removes the bluefin’s head, tail, and fins with a saw before pulling the entrails from the stomach cavity. He then packs the fish with ice and stores the entire carcass in a special fish bag designed to protect it from the sun.

Tonight the boat will be met at the buyer’s dock by a technician, or a fish grader, someone who assesses the quality of the meat. If the fish is judged worthy, it will be shipped by truck to Boston, where it will be loaded onto a cargo plane in a specially designed ice-filled coffin. It will be on the floor of the Tsukiji fish market near Tokyo, Japan, first thing tomorrow morning.

Bait should start dropping soon,” Bill says as he lights the cigarette that has been hanging from his lips for the last ten minutes. “We’ll make a bait set and take a look around while it soaks.” It’s 5:30 on a cold morning in mid-October, and we have just reached the southern corner of Jeffery’s, two and a half miles from the identical lighthouse towers demarcating Thatcher’s Island.

Commercial tuna fishermen in New England use only the freshest bait. Bill, like all of the other top fishermen, catches his own each morning. Herring, one of the principal components of the bluefin’s diet and a major reason that they migrate to the Gulf of Maine, are pseudonocturnal, spending their nights dispersed in the upper layers of the water column where they swim mouths agape, filtering zooplankton, krill, and tiny baitfish from the water. At graylight, however, the herring bunch together and drop to the bottom, and it is only during this time when they can be gillnetted efficiently.

“There’s a good spike,” Bill says from the wheelhouse. Herring when tightly bunched often appear on the depth sounder as a narrow, blue vertical line. “Get the first anchor ready,” he calls. In the stern of the boat, a gillnet sits piled thigh-high on a blue tarp. The baitnet is nine feet deep and six hundred feet long, composed of thin monofilament line arranged in one-inch mesh diamonds. Floats are strung along the top edge of the net, while a lead line runs the length of the bottom. Once deployed, the net will float on the seafloor, snaring the herring as they drop from their nighttime feeding. Hefting the first of the net’s two anchors to the rail, I wait for Bill’s call, while he makes mental calculations of the set of the current, wind speed, and bottom topography. “Alright, let her go.”

I toss the anchor as far back as I can and step into the port corner of the boat. Coming tight, the net flows over the transom, each black float clinking against the fiberglass hull, before disappearing into the turbulent water churned by the Gillian Anne’s prop. “We’ll give her a good twenty-minute soak this morning. Hopefully fill a few boxes,” Bill says.

I ask about the season’s bait situation. The oily, fatty flesh of the herring, Clupea harengus, is the lifeblood of the North Atlantic, eaten by not only tuna, but codfish, hake, haddock, pollock, striped bass, bluefish, swordfish, and various species of whales and sharks. Older fishermen describe seeing schools of herring that, at their height, stretched the length of Jeffery’s Bank from Gloucester to Downeast Maine. Yet many believe herring are vanishing from the ecosystem. In the 1990s, midwater pair trawling, a fishing technique in which two large boats drag a single net stretched between them, was introduced to the Gulf of Maine to target the immense biomass of herring. Midwater trawlers are capable of fishing the entire water column, capturing anything more than a few inches in length. Bycatch is often significant, including groundfish species such as cod and haddock, even the occasional giant tuna.

Ask any tuna fishermen what they believe are the main problems facing bluefin in the Gulf of Maine and invariably they launch into a discussion of bait and the lack thereof. Bill is no different. “The problem is the midwater boats. There’s just not enough bait for the tuna to stick around. The lack of it makes the fish racy. They are always steaming around looking for more dispersed schools. Can’t settle down into a particular pattern,” he says, growing visibly angry as we wait for the bait net to soak. Chris Weiner, a young tuna captain and member of one of the most successful Maine bluefin fishing families, has told me, “Bluefin don’t swim thousands of miles just to hang out in the Gulf of Maine. They come here to feed. As long as the bait population continues to decline we’re going to see fewer fish venturing into inshore waters.”

While it is easy to write these gripes off as one fishery blaming another, recent scientific studies have started to lend some credence to their complaints. Walter Golet studied the quality assessments of a New Hampshire-based fish technician. Using over three thousand samples spanning from 1991 to 2004, Golet found the overall quality of fish landed in the Gulf of Maine had declined. Yet Golet is cautious about claiming the change is due to less bait, considering relatively high assessments of herring biomass by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). He cites changes in migratory or reproductive patterns or increased fishing pressure as other possible causes.

“Canada’s got it right,” says Bill. “They gillnet and purse seine for herring up there, that’s why they have all the bluefin.” There is no question that Canada has seen leaps in the amount of fish caught in recent years. Fishermen regulated under a system of regional quotas often fill their allotments in only a few days time, sometimes catching more than ten fish in a single day.

A long silence follows as Bill searches through the pale morning light for the gillnet’s pick-up buoy. Spotting it on the crest of a wave, he pulls a pair of orange, waterproof “foulies,” or foul weather pants, over his paint-stained corduroys and floppy brown rubber boots. Maneuvering the boat toward the pick-up, he gaffs the buoy, placing it in the teeth of the hydraulic winch located at his waist. The engine groans with the strain, coughing black smoke out of the exhaust. Bill reaches forward, goosing the throttle. The hydraulics whine as the line pours out of the winch’s toothed groove, coiling neatly into piles on deck.

A fish caught in a purse seine.
The use of purse seines is prolific throughout the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic.

“Looks like we got some,” Bill says, smiling broadly. The rising net streams like a silver ribbon through the blackish-blue of the depths. Circling dogfish, a prolific scavenging shark, rip chunks of bait from the mesh. Herring fill the net, poking out of seemingly every mesh. Most are gilled, the mesh of the net lodged securely behind their gills, while the largest are snagged only by the bony protrusions of their jaw.

Holding a bight of the net above our heads, we shake it violently. Herring fly in every direction, smacking the roof of the wheelhouse, bouncing off windows, the deck, and our bodies. Scales soon fill the air, turning every surface a shimmering, metallic gray. Bill’s face, mustache, and hair are covered. Below the dogfish are wreaking havoc, and more than a few herring come up halved, dripping roe, milt, and entrails from the wounds. Others spray eggs and sperm indiscriminately. I taste blood and scales with every breath.

Bill is enjoying himself, squinting through watering eyes filled with scales. Lift. Shake. Throw. The cycle repeats itself for almost an hour as we work down the net. Occasionally, Bill stops the winch. “Look at that moose,” he exclaims, carefully extracting a particularly large herring and tossing it into the livewell.

Herring aren’t the only thing caught in the net. Whiting, redfish, and mudhake, a seeming cross between an eel and a catfish, also come flipping over the rail, swimbladders and eyes sticking grossly from their bodies. Dogfish, too greedy in their feasting, often become entangled themselves, twisting the net into knots around their body, ripping large holes with the sharp spines along their back.

As Bill finishes hauling the last of the net, I shovel the mounds of bait off the deck. In the livewell a few dozen baits swim contentedly. Bill guides the Gillian Anne towards Halfway Hump, satisfied as he smokes a cigarette and opens his second Redbull of the morning. It has been more than four weeks since his last fish. Expenses are starting to pile up, and the frustrations of the season are starting to show. But rumor has it someone took a nice fish on the Hump yesterday, that it dressed at over four hundred pounds. “Maybe they’ll chew today,” Bill says quietly as he carefully scrapes the herring scales from his forearm.

One hundred and twenty miles southeast of Nova Scotia, 157 miles east of Gloucester Harbor, the v-shaped wake of a bluefin tuna marks the surface. Our female is showing, pushing water, as captains say, cruising slowly during the midday heat. Flanking her on either side are nine others, strung out equidistant apart in the shape of a parabola, their dorsal and tail fins breaking the glassy surface with tiny wavelets. They are in a hunting formation, cruising the edge of George’s Bank, the massive underwater plateau separating the Gulf of Maine from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ten years have passed since her birth, and she is now a true giant—four hundred pounds and almost seven feet in length. It’s been a successful foraging season. Since her arrival at the edge in June, she has gained more than seventy-five pounds.

With age she has adapted a more solitary lifestyle, choosing to hunt alone or in small groups, rather than the massive schools of her youth. The entire Atlantic is now her domain, and she ranges east to the Bay of Biscay, south to the Sargasso Sea, and north into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But each summer and fall, she returns to the Gulf of Maine, the history of reliable feed imprinted into the very fat striations of her flesh.

How she navigates back to the edge of George’s Bank is largely unknown. Within her forebrain there is a pinhole-like structure, called the pineal window that functions much like the lens of a camera, allowing her to judge with extreme accuracy changes in light levels. The subtlest of signals are her guide: changes in the declination of the sun, salinity, the magnetic signatures of landmasses, and oceanic currents. Bluefin are capable of an almost eerie fidelity to foraging areas. One fish released on October 19, 2005, off southwest Nova Scotia, was recaptured eleven months later by the same boat at exactly the same location.

The hunting formation follows the tide and current lines formed as water races up and over the northern edge of George’s. Ahead, a scalloper is towing a large dredge, dragging scallops from the seabed. The line of bluefin sweeps down toward the bottom, wrapping around the scallop dredge as if it were a bait school.

On the way down, the water drops from 61° to 45° F. She hardly notices, her body rapidly producing heat to compensate. Blood cooled as it runs through her gills flows through a matrix of vessels, called the retia mirabilia, where it is warmed by hot blood returned from her muscles. This system allows her to elevate the temperature of her brain, visceral cavity, and portions of her musculature, an adaptation that only she and a few other species of tuna and pelagic sharks possess.

The dredge appears out of the murk 180 feet below the surface. It crawls over the seafloor, bouncing across rocks, seaweeds, and anemones, leaving a swath of barren mud. Cod, mudhake, pollock, and whiting dart through the cloud of murk kicked up by the dredge. As she attacks the disturbed fish her gills flare wide. Her dorsal and pectoral fins extend from slots within her torso like cat’s claws. The escaping baits are helpless, sucked into the vacuum of her opening jaws. Caught in the mesh of the tuna’s gill rakers, bony protrusions on the inside of her mouth, the bait passes into the pharynx, where muscle contraction force it back into the esophagus and stomach.

Now mature, the bluefin is ready to reproduce. Deep inside her skull, at the back of her brain, the pituitary releases massive concentrations of the hormone gonadotropin, spurring the production of reproductive steroids in her ovaries. This winter she will migrate south toward the spawning grounds, relying on the stores accumulated in the Gulf of Maine for sustenance. Perigonadal fat, converted and reserved from the oils of Gulf of Maine herring, accumulates around her ovaries and will be used to produce viable eggs the following spring.

The details of bluefin spawning are conflicted. Currently, ICCAT estimates that 100 percent of western Atlantic bluefin reach maturity by age nine. There are, however, studies that point to both younger and older ages of maturity. It matters because only by determining the age of maturity can scientists begin to estimate the number of breeding adults in the population. This estimation can swing wildly with only slight changes in the average age of breeding. Until scientists reach a consensus, biomass assessments will remain problematic.

Since the 1970s, it has been known that the Gulf of Mexico represents the major spawning site for western origin fish. Yet out of 381 mature fish tagged by different research groups only 3 to 11 percent entered the Gulf of Mexico, 317 of which remained somewhere in the vast water between the Gulf Stream and the Azores for the duration of the winter and spawning season. Even among the largest fish (more than fifteen years old) presumed to be the primary spawners in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Lutcavage has found that 44 percent don’t enter a known spawning area during the spawning season, suggesting that either mature bluefin don’t spawn annually or they spawn somewhere else. Lutcavage believes western bluefin spawn at different areas and at different times according to their size, a phenomenon seen among bluefin populations in the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean, suggesting that spawning might occur at the edge of the Gulf Stream and north of the Bahamas.

On November 7, the wind finally dies. It has been blowing since we left Gloucester three days ago, the seas steep and chaotic, making even the simplest of tasks difficult. Bill has decided to head one hundred miles south to an area of water east of Cape Cod, a last gamble, but we still hadn’t seen any signs of fish. The deck of the boat is littered with empty fuel barrels, each a reminder of the trip’s expense.

The calming wind is only a minor consolation. The weather radio’s monotone voice announces that the respite is only momentary. Tomorrow the wind will blow up again from the east, the start of winter’s first northeaster. As the Gillian Anne cruises north, the VHF crackles with fishermen coming to grips with the season’s end—relief in the voices of those at the tail ends of successful seasons, defeat seeping into the tone of the not-so-lucky.

Bill hasn’t said much in the last few days, spending most of his time poring over the depth sounder and charts. He hasn’t landed a bluefin since mid-August, and the effort of trying long ago exhausted what money he made from the four he caught earlier in the season. Nor can Bill return to gillnetting this winter. Changing regulations have severely reduced his allotment of the groundfish quota, and he sold his permits to his son in order to secure B. G. ‘s future.

“Time for a change, I guess,” Bill says, as we steam north over Stellwagon Bank. “This boat’s getting a bit too small for me. I feel like I’m caged up.”

“Have you seen the Mistress?” he says, referring to a hulking, forty-five foot wooden offshore lobster boat that he dreams of buying. “Now, that’s a boat. We’d be going out tomorrow if I had that. Run trips down to the Canyons. Chase the bluefin out to George’s. That’s the best kind of fishing you can do.”

Somewhere far out in the Gulf of Mexico, halfway between New Orleans and the Yucatan Peninsula, there is a spectacular light flash below the sea’s surface. It’s late evening in mid- April, and the moon is just beginning to rise. There isn’t a soul to witness it.

No one has ever seen bluefin spawn in the western Atlantic. Observations from the Mediterranean are rare and mainly anecdotal, but scientists and fishermen have described seeing the whole surface of the water flash, like a brilliant light bulb burning out, the trail of milt and roe left by the school visible for miles.

A school of bluefin tuna.
Tracking and counting any species of fish in the vast Atlantic is nearly impossible, but through the use of specific tags scientists are now able to follow the bluefin under the waves, discovering their day-to-day habits.

The bluefin tuna swims under the warm water of the Gulf. Thin from migrating, she has traveled thousands of miles. Fatigued, malnourished, she survives off the fat deposits accumulated in the waters of the North Atlantic. Like the rest of her school, she is now massive, weighing over a thousand pounds. Twenty-five seasons have passed since her birth.

A slight wind ruffles the surface of the Gulf. Pheromones fill the water at the center of the bluefin school. Her heart rate increases. Her sides pulsate in iridescent blue, purple, and silver until the dark waters shimmer. The first male dashes through the center leaving a trail of white spermatophore hanging in the water. Fish torpedo towards each other, only to turn at the last second, brushing gracefully along their undersides, leaving their milt and eggs to mingle. Couples shoot from the mix, bellies touched together as they beat their tails with abandon. The water, the whole sea it seems, becomes saturated with milt and roe.

Out across the Atlantic’s opaque waters this dance repeats itself with hopeful regularity, these beautiful flashes of light dotting the Gulf of Mexico, and possibly the Bahamas, the Sargasso Sea, the edge of the Gulf Stream. Within the next two days, the embryos will hatch, proteolytic enzymes eating the envelope of the egg from the inside out, and the life cycle will begin anew. Each larva possesses the instinct to survive the fiercest and most fluid of ecosystems, soft echoes of their predecessors carried in a tiny drop of water in the vastest of seas.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading