Diving Birds and Bluefin Tuna on Prince Edward Island
“Making $5 on a lobster is a dream, at $4 we make money but we’re at $3 right now.” Veteran fisherman Captain Kenny looks out to the choppy gunmetal grey water and grins ruefully before putting the ‘hammer’ down to speed us out to sea towards the horizon. There are seals out there bobbing and diving in the water, snacking on mackerel and somewhere—hopefully— Atlantic Bluefin tuna. The plan is to find them and hand feed them with mackerel; but first we have to catch the mackerel.
As we crash through the increasingly rough sea, Captain Kenny yells out fishing stats above the roar of the engine and the rhythmic slap of water against the windscreen. The cod seem to not be coming back; they disappeared, over-fished into almost extinction in the 1990s and have barely been seen since. There are strict regulations on fisheries now, necessary for the survival of the oceans but hard on those who’ve made their living for generations from the ocean. A recent wild halibut season was only 12 hours long, there’s a quota and once that’s met, that’s that. It’s the same for the Bluefin Tuna that we’re seeking out right now, “I’m only allowed to catch one tuna, the weight is checked at the port,” Kenny explains. “You clear $6,000 on one tuna if you’re lucky – often far less – there are 360 people with licenses to catch them and our quota is 125m tone of bluefin tuna for all of PEI.” The weight is subtracted from the quota and then – incredibly – names are picked out of a hat to decide who can fish for more than one.
We stop to catch mackerel, alas, it turns out I’m a rotten fisherman and the only thing I catch is another person’s hook. Fortunately there are others on board less ham-fisted than I when it comes to finding big tuna’s dinner. We bag half a bucket’s worth and speed off again until, eyes narrowed against the horizon, Captain Kenny slows the boat down and we all peer at the sonar monitor which he uses to find the tuna.
The green and blue display looks pleasingly like a vintage Atari video game, and I find myself watching for fish icons to come swimming across the screen. But there is no sign of tuna – even though fisherman’s lore tell us that they are there – fishermen have always looked for these giant fish by watching birds. From their aerial vantage point birds can spot of schools of fish and they’re always on the look out for easy pickings. If they spot mackerel close to the surface and start bombarding the water, it’s likely that the tuna will be close and feeding too. It’s incredible to watch the birds dive again and again for their supper; they flap their wings, circle close and then just a few feet away from the water hurtle beak-down into the waves. The sky becomes a white-winged squadron of dive-bombing birds, it’s mesmerizing.
I watch the birds wheel overhead and then smash into the water, just beyond us wind turbines spin slowly in the breeze and all around the boat, seals bob in the water like beach balls, “Swimming dogs is what they are,” grins Captain Kenny, and offers around a plastic bottle of his home-brewed Moonshine. It’s surprisingly smooth but makes you catch your breath as it burns a heady trail down. It’s just what’s needed to numb the disappointment of a no-show tuna trip. They’re down there alright, Kenny explains, pointing to a dark pattern at the bottom of the sonar screen; just too far down for us and they’re not hungry enough to come to the surface. Maybe it’s that second (third?) gulp of Moonshine or maybe it’s just the excitement of the boat and the seals, the kamikaze birds and the thrill of the hunt but as we chug back to harbour I’m really not feeling sad at all. You can’t schedule nature, tuna won’t swim up to be fed on demand and there’s always something a little refreshing about that in this overly-organised world. A nice two-fin salute to us humans who’ve messed things up so much perhaps? But oh, we’re trying now are trying to fix things and eco-tourism initiatives like this and Captain Kenny’s Hook & Release fishing excursions are what will keep fishermen in business and – hopefully – give the oceans time to re-stock with fish.
I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism PEI but as ever, all my words are 100% my own.
· Giant Blue Fin Tuna [Official Site]
· Tourism PEI [Official Site]
· Ocean Wise – Find Sustainable Seafood Choices [Official Site]