Killer Whales Eating Bluefin Tuna Off Cape Hatteras

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Killer Whales Eating Bluefin Tuna Off Cape Hatteras

Some orcas are making the news in North Carolina because they’re interfering with sport fishermen who are fishing for giant bluefin tuna off Cape Hatteras.

Orcas, also commonly called “killer whales,” have been making the news recently because one of Sea World’s show animals has returned to the facility after being “quarantined” for a number of months. This is the same animal that made headlines a few months ago when it grabbed its trainer by the hair, dragged her into the aquarium and drowned her. The Sea World’s PR folks tell us that the orca is now okay and that they don’t anticipate any more trouble from Tillicum in spite of the fact that this particular animal has a history of killing three of its former trainers.

Now some orcas are making the news here in North Carolina because they’re interfering with sport fishermen who are fishing for giant bluefin tuna off Cape Hatteras.

What’s one to do when a killer whale (a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act) eats a fish that’s a closely managed as one of the highly migratory fishes of the world? In fact, some organizations are trying to have the Atlantic bluefin tuna placed on the endangered species list.

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed paperwork to have the bluefin tuna protected under the Endangered Species Act. According to them “over fishing" has erased more than 80 percent of the bluefin tuna in the North Atlantic compared to what the population would be without fishing pressures. Now the Gulf oil disaster threatens to devastate the western Atlantic bluefin population as millions of gallons of oil gush into the tuna’s habitat during spawning season. The oil will have devastating effects on eggs and larvae floating in the sheen, and will even harm adult tunas breathing oil into their gills. Also, heavy use of dispersants threatens tuna and dispersed oil is known to be toxic to fish.

“Endangered status for bluefin tuna could mean enhanced protections for all fish and wildlife in the Gulf,” said Catherine Kilduff, the author of the petition and oceans attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Oil rigs are scattered throughout essential breeding habitat for bluefin tuna, and protections could force reforms of the Interior Department’s lax environmental oversight of the oil industry by limiting drilling to avoid adverse effects on fish and their habitat.”

There are two imperiled populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna; one spawns only in the Gulf of Mexico while the other spawns in the Mediterranean. The petition seeks endangered status for both populations, which have collapsed due to intense over fishing. Despite attempts to set quotas for bluefin tuna, temptation for the popular sushi fish is just too great — one tuna fetched $177,000 in the fish market this year. In 2007, fishermen reported catching 34,514 tons of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, exceeding the allowable catch by about 5,000 tons. Scientists estimated the actual catch was likely about double the reported amount.

“Bluefin tuna encounter thousands of deadly hooks while migrating across the Atlantic, and now an oil spill will welcome home the survivors,” said Kilduff. “Bluefin tuna need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, which can provide an important safety net before bluefin tuna disappear entirely from the ocean.”

Able to migrate across entire oceans, bluefin return to their native spawning grounds to breed. A majestic fish weighing close to a ton and reaching 13 feet, the bluefin is among the fastest of all species, with speeds over 55 miles per hour. Bluefin tuna are threatened by over fishing, capture for tuna ranches, and changing ocean conditions from global warming.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would require federal agencies such as the Minerals Management Service to avoid jeopardizing the bluefin tuna, and it would protect critical habitat.”

While most of the movement to protect the bluefin tuna seems to be aimed at the commercial fishermen, it still has a profound effect on the sport of fishing and this has a big effect on our sport fishing fleet operating off the North Carolina coast. Legally sport fishermen can only take (kill) a very small number of these big tuna. The fish they are allowed to take must be of a certain size and the permits to take even one of a limited number of bluefin tuna are hard to come by.

Some years ago William Boone of Garner, N.C. and I were aboard a tuna fishing boat operating from Prince Edward Island, Canada. We were guest aboard this boat and assisted in the taking of a big tuna.

The boat was using some of the largest rods and reels that I’ve ever seen and was trolling huge lures in an attempt to hook into one of these fish. Of course, since we were guest aboard the boat the boat was to keep any fish that might have been taken,

About three hours out of port we had a strike and the huge reels began to scream as the fish pulled many yards of heavy monofilament line off the reel. No attempt was made to remove the rods from the heavy rod holders and the fish was fought with the rods being firmly held in these holders. It was a battle between a huge fish, the ultra-heavy tackle and a boat that was about 85 feet in length. It couldn’t have been called a very sporting way to take one of the world’s great game fish.

When the big boat and heavy gear finally brought the fish along side, the mate aboard the boat shot the fish in the head with a shotgun (slug) and the fish was gaffed and hauled aboard the boat with a winch. We were astounded to look at this fish which some have described as looking “like a 1,000-pound football.”

As soon as the dead fish was aboard the boat the skipper immediately turned around and headed for port with all the speed he could squeeze out of the boat. News of the catch was radioed ahead so that a Japanese fish buyer could be on hand to examine the fish for fat levels in the fish’s belly meat and the results of this forwarded to Japan. When the gutted and bled fish was weighed it weighed just a few pounds under the 1,000-pound level.

With the specs of the big fish in hand fish buyers in Tokyo authorized the fish inspector in Prince Edward Island to enter a bid on the fish. The Canadian boat owner, captain of the boat and the crew were paid $27,000 for that one fish. The fish was rushed to the airfreight office where it was quickly iced down and immediately flown to Tokyo. Within hours of its arrival there it was cut into pieces and resold to Japanese restaurants for what we were told was over $100,000. Who knows what that one fish finally bought to the consumers who paid a princely piece for a taste of raw tuna?

This high price of the meat of the bluefin tuna is largely responsible for it’s population decline, which is considered to be in a sad state of repair. Hopefully the world will stop the slaughter of the giant Atlantic bluefin tuna in time for the population of this great game fish to recover to acceptable levels.

For the past few years the fishing grounds off Cape Hatteras have shown sport fishermen some of the true world-class fishing for these bluefin tuna. There’s still some commercial market for the tuna that are taken off our coast but the supply can’t possibly fill the demand for fresh bluefin tuna meat. As long as the market pays these extraordinary prices for this product there’s going to be a black market for the fish.

Federal agents are doing their best to enforce the laws having to do with the harvest of the big tuna but, as always, there are a few of these big fish that slip through to the demand of the Japanese markets.

In reality, what the orcas may take is small when compared to what the amount the commercial harvest sends to the Japanese markets.

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