Tuna Fishing

Tuna Fishing [i]


Headlines from local newspapers boasting North Lake tuna fishing.

     Tuna fishing at North Lake truly began in 1967.  Mr. Aubrey Purcell visited the Island from Halifax, NS, who was a well renowned professional tuna guide.  Mr. Purcell was brought to North Lake to inspect the prospects of a viable tuna fishery.  The first Bluefin tuna caught off North Lake was on August 31st, 1967 by Mr. Bruce Oland, weighing 855lbs.

     There was only one boat fishing tuna that year, the “Grand River” owned by Merrell MacDonald.  However, five tuna were landed for the season.   The following year 5 boats were tuna fishing and a total of 13 tuna were landed.  In 1969, the boats totaled 6 with 31 fish landed.

     Charter bookings began for the following year; this was the beginning of the charter business at North Lake.

     The boats at this time were small wooden lobster boats, not that large fibre glass ones many charter-goers were accustomed to.  However, Bluefin tuna were being caught, despite the lack of fancy equipment and boats.  The more fishermen caught and lost, the more they learned about the business.  It became easier to determine the best way and place to catch the giant fish.

     Even with all of these fish being landed, a problem still existed; finding a market.  Many of the tuna were being tossed back into the ocean after the catch or finding their way to the landfill.  One fish buyer was freezing the tuna, in hopes of finding a market but space was becoming an issue.  This market had to be in another part of the world as restrictions on mercury content levels in Canada prevented the sale and consumption.  Without security of a market, tuna fishing was strictly a sport-fishery, allowing charter captains to obtain money for the privilege of catching the tuna.  Experienced tuna anglers were warning fishermen, even at this time to be leery of a decline in stocks.  Tuna travel in cycles therefore they may not always be present in the same locations.  A few captains took up the challenge of transforming their lobster boats into viable charter boats; a market for charter fishing was beginning to develop.

      October was the best month to hook a tuna as the fish were fattening up for their migration trek south, this was usually done in November.

      In 1968 North Lake quickly became the best known location for catching the big fish with 700 and 800 pound fish being landed.

      The tuna cycle was already being felt in Nova Scotia.  In the early 1960s PEI was beginning to see those high numbers.  The tuna catches off Nova Scotia were dwindling.

      In 1970, North Lake became famous as “Tuna Capital of the World,” with record weighing catches of 1040 lbs(Mel Immergut), 920 lbs (Harry Heckbert), 750 lbs (Ron Hanson), 903 lbs (Broney Gadman), just to name a few.

      The market was still looking bleak for tuna fishing. Also at this time Dr. Frank J. Mather wrote that the Bluefin tuna, the kind fished off North Lake, were of the last “sizeable breeding population” located in the western North Atlantic. Dr. Mather was an American scientist working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.  No response was given by the PEI Sports Fishing Association to the claims of Dr. Mather.

      Tuna were not the only business at North Lake Harbour.  With the vast number of people visiting “The Lake” to catch a glimpse or land one of these famous fish, the market for accommodations and restaurant presented itself.  The Bluefin Motel and Restaurant and the Seabreeze Motel and Restaurant both benefitted from the clientele of sport fishery.  Other local businesses in Eastern Kings and Souris also reaped the benefits of the tuna season.

     Mr. Billy MacMillan acted as the official weigh-master at North Lake Harbour. He was employed as the Government Wharfinger at the time.

     The first organized tournament at North Lake started on August 20th, 1970.  A three-day event called the “International Outdoor Writer’s Tuna Match.”

     For the next 3 years an organized tournament took place.  In 1971, the “Tuna Queen” contest was introduced, with sixteen princesses representing 16 boats.  The princess representing the boat that caught the largest tuna would be named “Tuna Queen.”

     The first year for the “International Giant Bluefin Tournament,” was 1974.  The last year for this tournament was 1976.

     August 19th, 1976 was the biggest day ever for bluefin tuna at North Lake.  Forty-eight tuna were caught off Naufrage. This was also the largest year for tuna caught off North Lake, with 456 fish averaging in weight of 870 lbs.

     The tuna season of 1977 began slowly; many tuna were not feeding in the same areas as usual.  The reason was realized soon after the fish were being processed.  Instead of finding mackerel in the large fish’s stomach, plant processors were finding squid.  Mackerel were widely known as their fish of choice.  This change in food also meant a change of feeding location. Squid are often found in different ocean areas than mackerel.

     Fishing in the 1978 season was greatly affected by the weather conditions at North Lake.  The sandbar at the opening of the harbor had shifted in the strong winds and tides.  Fishermen had to be sure (and careful) to get in and out of the harbor at high tide, to avoid being stuck on the sandbar which would cause damage to the boat and possibly the crew.  The 1978 season saw 174 tuna catches at North Lake Harbour.

     The 1979 tuna fishing season in PEI saw illegal fishing of tuna as well as loosening of license restrictions.  Licenses were now available to commercial fishermen who were able to prove they had both equipment and boat suitable to fish tuna; the number of licenses greatly increased.  The popularity of tuna fishing was growing rapidly.  The lifting of restrictions would see a projected 30% more boats fishing.

      In 1980, the quota of 1200 bluefin tuna was given.  These tuna were to be caught in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and was shared between all three Atlantic Provinces.  Once the quota was caught the season would close.  The number of tuna in past years was lower than the quota amount.  Fishermen were expecting to fish later into the season when the size of the tuna was greater and the market price in Japan would be higher.

      Nineteen eighty was the first year Southside fishermen were landing tuna; including Launching, Murray Harbour and Bay Fortune.  This was due to the migratory nature of tuna.  The large fish were feeding on herring in the south shore waters.  Reports on September 5, 1980 said that 52 tuna were caught thus far in the season. This was a slightly lower number than the same time in the previous season.  The decline was being blamed on tuna further offshore and the change in their migration habits.

     The selling prices began at two dollars per pound, but were dropping to one dollar twenty-five cents.  The Japanese markets were turning down tuna as they were displeased with the small size and dark red meat they were receiving.  The buyers preferred bright red meat and larger fish.  North Lake Tuna Charters recorded up to October 9, 1980, 67 tuna were landed at North Lake.

     The beginning of the 1981 season saw a tuna management plan introduced.  Many changes were introduced but one that made the most impact was the introduction of a tended line fishery; this would exclude using a rod and reel.  This meant that the fishing line had to be attached to the boat at all times.  No more than two lines were permitted at a time and each line could have one hook.  A buoy had to be attached to each line and the size of the line had to be 3/8 inch and made of polypropylene rope.  There would be no new licenses issued; only those fishermen who applied the previous year could acquire them.  It was also said that those licenses that existed could only be given to children and children-in-law of the fishermen owning the license.  These new plans were unveiled by the area manager for Federal Fisheries, Mr. William Murphy.

     The price for the tuna per pound had dropped again in the 1981 season, from one dollar twenty-five cents to eighty-cents.

     The quota for the 1982 season was set at 353 tuna for all of PEI.  The previous year over five hundred tuna were caught.  This quota was closely monitored between the west and east end of the province.  Mr. Murphy also made the statement that if catches were higher in one area than another, a freeze in that area would take place.  This plan took effect on August 28th. The tuna fishery was closed to all those fishing, except from Malpeque to East Point, where the catches thus far had been very low.  A lot of negativity followed this decision, from both ends of the Island.  However, Mr. Doug Rix, Federal Fisheries director explained that these actions were taken to allow fishermen who had yet to catch a tuna the opportunity to do so.  Many political conversations and news articles occurred in the following weeks.  Meanwhile, fishmen jigged[i] for mackerel and groundfish waiting to hear the next step in the tuna season.

     On September 20, 1982 the season opened again for all PEI fishermen with about 40 tuna left to fill the quota.  Soon after it opened a matter of hours in fact, 66 tuna were landed at Tignish, causing many fishermen to become even more angry than before.  This was the end of the 1982 season, which would go down in the history books as one fishermen would not soon forget.

    Before the end of 1982 Mr. Murphy made an announcement concerning the upcoming 1983 tuna season.  The quotas would be doubled, with the proposal PEI be split into three fishing zones.  There would also be allocations made for charter fishermen and commercial fishermen early in the New Year.

    The Island Bluefin Committee was organized and met many times in the winter of 1983, led by Mr. Walter Bruce of North Lake.   They developed a plan to present to the Federal Government.  They requested a quota of 706 tuna, with the distribution of that quota being 70% for eastern PEI and 30% for western PEI.  Also, that 25 to 30 of the tuna be saved for charter fishermen.  The fishermen received a quota of 660 to be shared in two zones.  The tended line format of fishing was still to be followed.  There was a new rule put in place as well: any uncaught quota could be transferred and landed after the close of the season.  By mid-September catches were up from the previous season.

     Another announcement was made near the close of the season.  Tuna quotas for the Atlantic Provinces had not been met, so fishing would continue even after provincial quotas were caught.  Fishing off Nova Scotia had been poor which contributed to this turn of events.

     The following year, 1984 the same quota of 660 tuna was set with the same uncaught-tuna regulations as the previous season.  Weeks after the opening date of August 25th, all fishing ports had reported lower catches and sightings of the famous bluefin tuna.

     By mid-October catcher were still very low and the fishermen were beginning to wonder where all the fish were going.  Although catches were low, prices being paid were much higher ($3.50/lb) for better quality tuna.

     With small numbers being caught in PEI, the smallest yet in the tuna industry, some fishermen were making the trip to Aulds Cove, NS to try their hand at catching a tuna there.  If a fish was caught the number would be credited to the Nova Scotia quota, not PEI.  Prices were still high for a good quality fish ranging $4-$6/lb.  The 1984 PEI tuna fishing season was yet another disaster with a mere 334 fish caught between all ports.  It was decided that the tuna fishery was most definitely in a decline.

     Again in 1985 the quota was set at 660, with the season starting off very slow.  By the middle of September only 50 tuna were landed at all ports in PEI.  The next week numbers weren’t any higher but the weight of the fish being caught was greater.  At the close of the season catches were again below the previous year.  The larger size of fish was becoming a worry for some fishermen.  With the number of small fish low the odds of them taking the place of the large ones was limited.  This meant serious trouble for the tuna fishery; an element many biologists had been warning about for years.

     The1986 season saw no difference in the number of tuna but the price for a quality fish was very high, ranging $40-$50/lb.  However, the big prices were not a huge benefit to those who were unable to make a catch.  For the entire season, the number of landings was 17 at North Lake.  Circumstances were not looking good for what was once a major industry in eastern PEI.

     The bluefin tuna seasons between 1986 and 1995 saw little to no fish caught on the Island.  Those that were catching tuna were travelling to Canso, NS, where numbers were a bit higher.  Absolutely no tuna were caught out of North Lake until 1995.  The biologist’s warnings were finally proving to be true.  The reasons for no fish could have been attributed to depletion of stocks due to fishing or linked to change in migration, water temperatures or feeding habits.


[i] Handline fishing


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