It’s a bit like the children’s book, “Where’s Waldo?” or for an older generation where’s Richard Scarry’s “Goldbug.” But instead of one Waldo in the photograph, there are many. I can count about 12 giant tuna in this photo. You have to look carefully, squinting your eyes through the glare, but the fish are there and they are large.
I love this shot. Wayne Davis took it. The name of the boat is the Fearless and she’s out of New Bedford, a big old steel rig, battered and worn.
The Fearless is scalloping on the Northern Edge of Georges Bank about 15 miles west of the Canadian Line. It’s nasty bottom, much of it unfishable with a dredge– rocky and full of shoals.
Scalloping on the Northern Edge, and across much of Georges Bank and the Nantucket Lightship, has been very good for the past decade. Good enough that giant tuna have possibly shifted their diets to include scallop guts. Into the pail go the beautiful scallop meats, the part that goes on your dinner plate, and the other part–the guts, the viscera, the snot–goes overboard. The tuna will hang around the scallop boats eating scallop guts for free.
That’s what is going on in this picture.
Wayne was flying around the eastern part of Georges Bank doing some reconnaissance work for a tuna purse seiner. Wayne flew out there from Plymouth, Mass. He was looking for a body of fish that a purse seiner might be interested in making a set on. It was in September of 2010. He flew for a very long time and didn’t see a thing. Then he found a few scallop boats. He flew over the Fearless saw the fish and snapped the photograph.
I asked Wayne if he’s always been seeing giant tuna on Georges. He said, “All through the 70s, 80s, and 90s when I was flying out there for swordfish boats, I remember seeing only two giants. That’s hundreds of hours in the air looking for swords and seeing only two giant tuna. Something new is definitely going on here. In 2005 I was out there and I saw a school of 500-pound fish, over 1500 of them. Ever since then we started seeing giants offshore on Georges. I think maybe that whole body of fish that used to be around the Great South Channel has shifted to the east and have hung around the scallopers.”
It’s interesting that this body of tuna–thousands of fish–found the scallop fleet and stuck around. But what is even more interesting is that the fish didn’t forget it, 2005 till now, they came back, year after year, feeding in the same general area.
Many tuna fishermen believe the tuna can hear a scallop boat from miles away, like the dinner bell ringing from a summer porch and the children come running from all corners of the yard to feed. Scallop boats are noisy–lots of steel and chain, heavy dredges, nothing breezy or airy about them. And then there’s the constant sound of the cutters, as the scallop shells fly from their hands and hit the backs of the stainless steel cutting boxes. A hell of a lot of racket. And given the acuteness of a fish’s hearing, it wouldn’t surprise me at all that this behavior is going on.
And another interesting thing to consider is why haven’t the bluefin tuna schools found the scallop fleets on the other parts of Georges and the Nantucket Lightship? The scallop resource is strong in many parts of New England. But you don’t hear about giant tuna. And the concentration of scallop boats in these areas can be staggering so you’d think that with all those scallop guts in the water you’d chum the tunas in. But you don’t hear about it, which makes me think that giant tuna are very area specific and very loyal to those areas. Which is kind of cool because these fish cross oceans, traveling over huge stretches of nothingness. The Northern Edge is a tiny part of Georges Bank, and Georges Bank is a tiny part of the Northeast Shelf. Whatever the Northern Edge has–herring, mackerel, scallop guts–the bluefins want. It also has location. The Northern Edge is close to Canadian waters, the Gulf of Maine, Cape Cod, and, lastly, deep ocean water. And also the Northern Edge is “to the east.” And many New England fish are making a shift to the north and to the east. Butterfish, mackerel, swordfish, squid, fluke are all on the move. Maybe it has to do with food; maybe with water temperature; maybe with phytoplankton blooms in the Labrador Current. It’s hard to say and it isn’t any one thing. These trends also don’t mean that these species have left New England waters for good it is just that some of these fish are showing up in places where they didn’t used to be before in any real abundance.
Getting back to bluefin tuna and scallop boats. I love this relationship. But I needed a scallop captain’s perspective. Eddy Welch of New Bedford, Mass., runs a boat named the Westport. He’s been running scallop boats for 40 years and knows every square inch of Georges Bank. I have talked with Eddy before about sea scallop management so I gave him a call. He answered the phone and said he was out the door and heading for the golf course. So I didn’t have much time. I went into a way-too-lengthy “pitch” about my theory of bluefins and scallopers and the Northern Edge. It was a treatise, a great drawn-out description of what I thought might be a fish’s learned behavior. By the time I was done talking, I was winded and thirsty. Eddy’s answer: “I have no idea if we have them around the boat. I’ve never bothered looking for them, never had a reason to. But what you say makes sense to me.”