From South Coast Today: The 881-pound tuna that got away
This fish story may lack the epic qualities of Ernest Hemingway's 1952 classic "The Old Man and the Sea," but for New Bedford's Carlos Rafael, the outcome was about the same. In both cases, despite capturing and bringing home a huge fish, powerful circumstances conspired to deprive the luckless fishermen of a potentially huge reward.
Boat owner Rafael, a big player in the local fishing industry, was elated when the crew of his 76-foot steel dragger Apollo told him they had unwittingly captured a giant bluefin tuna in their trawl gear while fishing offshore.
"They didn't catch that fish on the bottom," he said. "They probably got it in the mid-water when they were setting out and it just got corralled in the net. That only happens once in a blue moon."
Rafael, who in the last four years purchased 15 tuna permits for his groundfish boats to cover just such an eventuality, immediately called a bluefin tuna hot line maintained by fishery regulators to report the catch.
Meanwhile, the weather offshore had deteriorated and the Apollo decided to seek shelter in Provincetown harbor last Saturday. Hearing this, Rafael immediately set off in a truck to meet the boat. "I wanted to sell the fish while it was fresh instead of letting it age on the boat," he said. "It was a beautiful fish."
It was also a lucrative one. Highly prized in Japan, a 754-pound specimen fetched a record price at a Tokyo auction in January this year, selling for nearly $396,000. These fish can grow to enormous size. The world record for a bluefin, which has stood since 1979, was set when a 1,496-pound specimen was caught off Nova Scotia.
However, when Rafael rolled down the dock in Provincetown there was an unexpected and unwelcome development. The authorities were waiting. Agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement informed him they were confiscating his fish — all 881 pounds of it.
Even though the catch had been declared and the boat had a tuna permit, the rules do not allow fishermen to catch these fish in a net.
"They said it had to be caught with rod and reel," a frustrated Rafael said. "We didn't try to hide anything. We did everything by the book. Nobody ever told me we couldn't catch it with a net."
In any case, after being towed for more than two hours in the net, the fish was already dead when the Apollo hauled back its gear, he said.
"What are we supposed to do?" he asked. "They said they were going to give me a warning," Rafael said. "I think I'm going to surrender all my tuna permits now. What good are they if I can't catch them?
No charges have yet been filed in connection with the catch, but a written warning is anticipated, according to Christine Patrick, a public affairs specialist with NOAA who said the fish has been forfeited and will be sold on consignment overseas. Proceeds from the sale of the fish will be held in an account pending final resolution of the case, NOAA said. No information on the value of the fish was available Friday.
"The matter is still under investigation," said Monica Allen, deputy director with NOAA Fisheries public affairs. "If it's determined that there has been a violation, the money will go into the asset forfeiture fund."