Giant Tuna on the September Menu
When 61-year-old Ian Gauthier motors out into the North Atlantic Ocean the first week in September, he will be at the wheel of his 45-foot Provincial open-hull fiberglass boat, the Aly Dan. He’s been doing this for 40 years. Behind him will be an upright thicket of short, stiff fiberglass rods carrying immense reels wound tightly with heavy braided and monofilament line.
Gauthier is after tuna. Not just any tuna, but the most valuable that swim the seas: the Atlantic bluefin, Thunnus thynnus. These astounding creatures hatch in the Gulf of Mexico. Rare survivors grow into giants—fish weighing half a ton that are among the fastest in the water, able to reach burst speeds of 45 miles an hour and swim from Georges Bank off New England to the Mediterranean Sea in weeks.
Most remarkable is the bluefin’s warm blood. Nearly all fish are cold-blooded, which relegates them to a narrow strata of suitable temperature. Through a system of thermoregulation, the bluefin is able to send heat to muscles, eyes, and brain, allowing it to feed on the surface as well as in the icy, food-rich depths.
Food is why adult bluefin tuna gather in late summer in the clear ocean waters off Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. From a lifetime of experience, Captain Gauthier knows where to find them. They are three to five miles off shore, in depths of 60 to 120 feet, where they feed ravenously on spawning mackerel and herring. Gauthier says the giants usually range from 400 to 600 pounds. The largest he ever boated weighed 1,010 pounds: a “grander.”
The fishery is almost entirely catch-and-release, a restriction designed by Canada’s Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to help sustain a highly migratory resource that during the last 50 years has declined dramatically. A boat is typically allowed to kill just one fish a season, and it belongs to the captain. In a positive sign for the future, Gauthier says he is seeing more smaller fish. It takes a bluefin 10 years to grow big.
“September is phenomenal,” he comments. “Some days we go out and in two or three hours we have our three fish tagged and back in the water.” Three is all a boat is allowed, to put less pressure on the resource. Gauthier says his anglers spend the rest of the day throwing herring overboard and watching in amazement as huge wild fish speed around under the boat.
In 2011, Gauthier and the Aly Dan won the Canada International Tuna Cup Challenge, held each year out of North Lake at Prince Edward Island. Winning is based on speed, which is precisely timed from hookup to touching the leader before the fish is released. Normally it takes an angler an hour to get one of these fighting chrome monsters next to the boat. Gauthier’s anglers in 2011, both gentlemen in their seventies, boated one giant tuna in eight minutes, a second in 12, and a third in 33 minutes. This year’s event (tunacupchallenge.com) is scheduled for September 6 to 11.
As astonishing as it seems now, as recently as the 1960s a typical giant bluefin tuna caught on rod and reel would have its weight painted in white numbers on its flank, be hoisted up on hooks for a picture with the smiling angler—and then be hauled off to the dump or sold for a pittance for cat food.
Then flash-freezing was invented; the Japanese developed a taste for bright-red tuna flesh they call “toro”; and someone figured out what to do with the empty cargo airplanes once they had dumped their loads of cheap televisions and radios in the U.S.: send them back to Tokyo stacked with fish.
On New Year’s Day in 2017, at the traditional auction at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, restauranteur Kiyoshi Kimura—the self-proclaimed Tuna King of Japan—paid a record 74.2 million yen ($636,000) for a flawless and fat-laden 467-pound Atlantic bluefin. A single bite-sized piece would sell to diners for $85.
Business aircraft can land at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island airport (flypei.com), where the longest paved runway is 7,000 feet. The fishing season runs from mid-July through mid-October. Weather is warm with light wind in July and August; expect cool mornings in September and October. Bruce Brothers Fishing Charters (peibluefintunacharters.com) charges $1,500 per day for the boat, which normally carries three or four anglers. Prince Edward Island has many fine inns and beach house B&Bs. Recommended dining: lobster every night!
Zane Grey on Atlantic Bluefins
“He was built like a colossal steel projectile, with a deep dark blue color on the back, shading to an exquisite abalone opal hue toward the under side, which was silver white. He blazed like the shield of Achilles. From the edge of his gill cover to the tip of his nose was two feet. He had eyes as large as saucers. His gaping mouth was huge enough to take in a bucket. His teeth were like a strip of sandpaper, very fine and small. The massive roundness of his head, the hugeness of his body, fascinated me and made me marvel at the speed he had been capable of. What incalculable power in that wide tail! I had to back away to several rods’ distance before I could appreciate the full immensity of him.”—Tales of Swordfish and Tuna (1927)