Sunday, November 19, 2023

‘Biggest fish of my life’: A Cape Breton fisherman’s hunt for the majestic bluefin tuna

‘Biggest fish of my life’: A Cape Breton fisherman’s hunt for the majestic bluefin tuna

Jake Edmiston | November 6, 2015 7:34 PM ET
PORT HOOD, N.S. — The fishing rod lurched down like it was pulled by a motorcycle, rattling in its holster as the frantic bluefin tuna fought against the hook. It was as thick as three men, long as a kayak, and strong enough to drag the the 40-foot boat in the Northumberland Strait.

Courtesy of Jeff MillsJeff Mills, and his fishing partner Freeman Piero, with their 870-lb tuna catch at the wharf in Port Hood, N.S.
“Look at him bending that rod,” captain Jeff Mills said to his two-man crew, three kilometres off the coast of Cape Breton. “You feel the boat going?”
The rod suddenly straightened out and the line went limp.
“Gone!” Mills screamed.
The three fishermen stared at one another. Then Mills looked out at the water and realized the fish wasn’t gone; it was swimming toward the boat.
The captain called for his driver to turn toward the port side.
“The prick’s been hooked before,” he said. “If he shoots under the boat, we’re f—ed.”
As the boat swung around, the line tensed and the rod bent down again. Mills pulled down on the line with one gloved hand and turned the reel with the other, wrenching his entire body in an attempt to inch the tuna closer.
“That’s a good fish, man,” Mills said, shaking his arm out and wiping sweat from his face.

Darren Pittman for National PostCapt. Jeff Mills looks out at the water in the Northumberland Strait.
If he could get it near the boat, he’d hit it with a harpoon — guaranteeing capture, but instantly dropping the price at market, where buyers are willing to pay up to pay thousands of dollars for the perfect fish, and frown at any puncture holes.
Capt. Mills has been eluded by these cunning fish before. He has watched his paycheque break the line and swim away. So he prefers a discounted tuna to no tuna.
“This is the only time you’ll ever see me pray,” he said, clutching the rod.
The bluefin tuna hunt is not the mythic lottery it once was, when the one fish could pay out a year’s salary for a day’s work. Now, the tuna’s allure as a rare delicacy may be fading away — and the massive price tags with it.
Buyers and fish brokers used to flock to the wharfs in Nova Scotia for dockside auctions in the 1990s, when fish could fetch upwards of $20,000 on Japanese markets. Matt Ross, a fish broker, is one of the few left on the docks in Cape Breton, looking for tuna with ruby red, fat-streaked meat. When the fish is good enough, it’s beheaded and rushed to Halifax airport, where it’s shipped to Japan on ice.
“The days of these big, crazy prices … they just don’t exist,” said Ross, who usually sells the tuna on a consignment basis for fishermen.

Jake Edmiston / National PostJeff Mills, right, readies a harpoon while Freeman Piero steers the fish closer to the boat.
The emergence of tuna farming and ranching, starting in the mid-1990s, has supplied Japan with a steady supply of fish — ending the huge spikes in demand that made the market a “cowboy’s game,” as Ross put it.
Twenty years ago, Ross could expect $20 to $30 per pound in Tokyo for fish from wharfs in P.E.I and Cape Breton. This year, with Japan racked by a decades-long economic slump and plenty of cheaper farmed fish available, he’s lucky to get half that. With North American environmental groups calling for an end to commercial fishing for endangered bluefin, breaking into local markets has proved difficult. This season, with a weak Canadian dollar, he was expecting a surge in sales to the U.S. Instead, 80 percent of his fish still went to Japan.
“The big false narrative out there in the public is all these fish are worth tens of thousands of dollars,” Ross said.
Some buyers, unsatisfied with the quality of farmed and ranched fish, will still pay good money for the perfect wild tuna to be used in sushi restaurants.
“It’s incredibly rare,” Ross said. “The reality is only a very, very small percentage of fish go for over $10,000.”
But fishermen like Capt. Mills makes an annual pilgrimage to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of one.
In early October, Mills drove the boat from his home in Louisbourg, N.S., tracing around Cape Breton to Port Hood on the western coast. The tuna season starts in August here, though most fishermen wait until the weather turns, when the fish will be fat from a summer of feeding on the herring, mackerel and squid that are abundant in these waters.

Jake Edmiston / National PostCapt. Jeff Mills struggles with an 870-lb bluefin tuna off the coast of Cape Breton on Oct. 5.
It’s a bit of a gamble, though, because the season ends abruptly whenever the region hits its government-mandated quota. When the quota is maxed out, the boats still holding permits to catch a tuna are out of luck.
The night before Mills’ fishing trip, while he was docked, another fisherman from the wharf came to visit. He told Mills that if he wanted to land a tuna, “Henry Island Bank is where you gotta be.”
Mills and his friends — Paul Mullins and Freeman Piero — left at dawn as the sun rose over the bluffs, sending creamsicle streaks across the sky. At Henry Island Bank, an underwater ridge jutting up from the ocean floor, they baited two lines with live, good-looking mackerel — always reverent of the powerful tuna.
Whenever they had to touch the fishing lines, they were careful not to get their finger caught. If the tuna took the bait while the line was looped around his finger, he would be dragged down with the fish, Mills warned.
Darren Pittman for National Post
“That’s why I’ve always got my knife on me,” he said.
By mid-morning, nothing was happening — no bites, no big red spots on the fish finder; just a bird trying to steal his bait. Mills was starting to think the guy at the wharf had lied to him.
They were the only ones above the bank. No sign of any other boats from the wharf.
“I don’t know if they’re playing games with me or what,” Mills said, leaning on the wheel in the pilot house, gripping his wavy hair.
He was quiet for a minute, then straightened up and told his crew to start the barbecue and get a tray of bacon on it.
“And let’s play them f—ing fish a song,” Mills said.
They pumped techno music through the on-board speakers and the three men danced on the deck, cutting up pieces of dead mackerel and throwing them into the water.
Darren Pittman for National PostJeff Mills at the wheel off the coast of Cape Breton.
“You just pick your place for the day and you fish it,” Mills said. “If you let your mind wander and think you got to keep moving, you’ll drive yourself nuts.”
A mink whale crested and sprayed sea water in the air, 50 feet from the boat.
“That’s a good sign,” Mullins said, standing at the barbecue. “Lots of bait fish around.”
Then the tuna came streaking across the top of the water. It bit down on the mackerel and kept pulsing ahead until the hook caught its lip, sending the fishing line screeching out of the reel.
The bluefin are known to travel in schools, sometimes hunting in a formation, like soldiers. In the western Atlantic, the tuna spawn in the Gulf of Mexico and most migrate up the east coast of the U.S. en route to Atlantic Canada, where they can weigh up to 1,100 lbs. But they have been charted crossing the Atlantic, and it’s not unknown for a bluefin from Morocco to end up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, said Gary Melvin, a scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
The Atlantic bluefin was declared endangered in a 2011 assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada. DFO has since been trying to decide whether the fish should be added to the Species at Risk Act, which would essentially shut down Canada’s commercial bluefin fishery in the Atlantic.
It’s responsible and highly regulated and controlled
Meantime, DFO scientists have noted that spawning tuna stock in the western Atlantic has increased to 30,000 tonnes — roughly double the alarming levels in the late 1990s that sparked an international rebuilding plan, with strict regulations and catch limits. But it’s still short of the 50,000 tonnes during the early 1970s.
“Don’t get me wrong: Bluefin tuna were in trouble in the past, ” Melvin said. “[Now] they’re not completely where people would like them to be, but they’re in the right direction and substantially much better off than they were in the 2000s and late 1990s.”
“It’s responsible and highly regulated and controlled.”
Activist groups, like the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, maintain that bluefin tuna populations are nowhere near healthy, and concerns about the tuna’s endangered status have permeated into the culinary world — where North American restaurants and chefs are joining boycotts of the fish.
“It’s a failure that the population is one-half the size it was in the 1970s, when the population was already depleted from decades of fishing,” Catherine Kilduff, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “That cheats our children of the world our parents had.”
It had been fighting for more than half an hour, and the fish still had fight left in it. It was close to the boat now, swerving around the motor, and Mills was afraid the propeller would cut the line.
The motor was revving hard, trying to stay ahead of the tuna, and the hum of it all was drowning Mills out. His voice was hoarse now, after screaming commands to Mullins at the wheel.
“Turn it around to the starboard,” he said.
The boat didn’t move.
“Starboard,” Mills said again, this time higher-pitched.
“Good?” Mullins asked.
“He’s just towing us around at will,” Mills said. “Keep going around in a slow f—ing circle. We’re going to try to keep him cornered.”
“He might be starting to tire out.”
By 11:30 a.m., the tuna was pinned up along the starboard side and Mills jumped away from the rod, took his harpoon with two hands and jabbed the fish.

Jake Edmiston / National Post Jeff Mills looks at herring boats in the distance off the coast of Cape Breton. The bluefin tuna hear the hum of those boats and come racing in, knowing the herring will be spilling out of the nets.
“There we go, guys,” he said.
The water went maroon with blood and the fish floated up to the surface, with panicked eyes the size of baseballs staring up at the captain.
Mills steered the fish, once strong and fast and smart, around to the back of the boat and ran a line up through its mouth and another around its tail.
“Now we’re gonna swim him,” Mills said.
He let the fish go, dragging it behind the boat to let it cool down. If they had pulled it aboard after it had spend 45 frenzied minutes fighting for its life, the tuna’s body heat would have cooked it from the inside while it lay on the dock. At the markets in Japan, the buyers call it burned meat.
After two hours, the fish was jumping again, pulling on the lines. The three fishermen pulled it in and Mills raked a sharp gaffe along its gills and made a small incision on its side, cutting the lateral line. It bled out in minutes.
“Beautiful fish,” Mills said.
Back at the wharf, they lifted the 868-lb tuna off the boat, cut off its head, cleaned out its entrails and sent it packed in ice to Japan. There, buyers would judge it by looking at a tail cut of the meat, along with a sample of the meat at the core of the fish.
“Nice tight, white, creamy fat is what you’re looking for,” said Matt Ross, the tuna broker. “I look for the shape of the fish. Fat and round and short like a football … Then you look for harpoon damage or any scars on the fish that might indicate some infection.”
Mills’ boat made $11.78 per pound on the fish, which weighed 660 lbs once it was beheaded and gutted — a $7,700 payday. It was a decent price, by this year’s standards.
“It’s the most exhilarating, mind-blowing thing you’ll ever do on a fishing rod,” Mills said.
“Biggest fish of my life.”
National PostGary LeDrew

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Surcouf or Swordfish

My Uncle Al Bussey harpooned a big swordfish off of Scaterie island In the Fall of 1941.They were in the process of drowning it when something took the line they saw a gigantic shadow under the boat and watched the line stretch and snap freeing the fish. They watched in amazement as the huge shadow disappeared in the distance
My father told me this story and it was confirmed this weekend at the Farmer's market by a writer Mr.Goldman who had been interviewing my Uncle Al but he had died before he got the details.
I am sure it was the French submarine Surcouf which was steaming to Halifax from St.Pierre about that time.

Liberation of St. Pierre and Miquelon
In December 1941, Surcouf carried the Free French Admiral Émile Muselier to Canada, putting into Quebec City. While the Admiral was in Ottawa, conferring with the Canadian government, Surcouf's captain was approached by The New York Times reporter Ira Wolfert and questioned about the rumours the submarine would liberate Saint-Pierre and Miquelon for Free France. Wolfert accompanied the submarine to Halifax, where, on 20 December, they joined Free French "Escorteurs" corvettes Mimosa, Aconit, and Alysse, and on 24 December, took control of the islands for Free France without resistance.

United States Secretary of State Cordell Hull had just concluded an agreement with the Vichy government guaranteeing the neutrality of French possessions in the Western hemisphere, and he threatened to resign unless President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded a restoration of the status quo. Roosevelt did so, but when Charles de Gaulle refused, Roosevelt dropped the matter. Ira Wolfert's stories – very favourable to the Free French (and bearing no sign of kidnapping or other duress) – helped swing American popular opinion away from Vichy. The Axis Powers' declaration of war on the United States in December 1941 negated the agreement, but the U.S. did not sever diplomatic ties with the Vichy Government until November 1942.