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Expanded catch-and-release fishery to lure tourists to PEI

In PEI, 360 people hold commercial licences to fish for bluefin tuna, which makes them eligible for the catch-and-release fishery.

Jay Rooker/The Canadian Press/Jay Rooker/The Canadian Press

Prince Edward Island fishermen smarting over low prices for their bluefin tuna are looking to attract international sport fishermen willing to pay big money to catch what Hemingway called "the king of all fish."

Although well aware of global concern over bluefin stocks, locals say the fish are abundant off PEI. And they point to new research showing that catch-and-release fishing has a mortality rate of only 3.4 per cent, less than expected.

"Years ago, back in the 1970s, North Lake was the tuna capital of the world," said Jody Gauthier, president of the PEI Tuna Charter Boat Association. "We want to get worldwide recognition. We got the tuna right here so we need to capitalize on it."

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Sport fishing was sidelined when shipping tuna to foreign markets became viable, but the idea has slowly been regaining ground. A tournament called the Tuna Cup attracted at least 100 people last September, Mr. Gauthier noted.

"It's the biggest thrill you'll get on the water," he said. "I've been doing it my whole life and you still get an adrenalin rush when you get hooked on."

The appeal of a catch-and-release fishery received a boost from the debacle of last year's commercial fishery. The opening of that fishery sparked a rush that glutted the market and drove down prices. Bluefin sold at the wharf for an average of less than $15/kilogram, and some people reported getting only a few dollars.

Industry insiders on PEI will be meeting in the lead-up to this season, seeking ways to avoid the same free-for-all. But some are also looking for ways to capitalize on the fish in a more sustainable and profitable way.

In PEI, 360 people hold commercial bluefin licences, which make them eligible to apply to participate in the catch-and-release fishery. About 20 did so last year, a spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said.

"If people can still get value out of not killing a fish, that's an important thing worth developing," said Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, although he believes the entire fishery is an "immoral" luxury trade.

Acadia University assistant professor of biology Michael Stokesbury, who led the study on mortality rates, said they tagged 59 bluefin off PEI. The tags recorded information about the fishes' movements and then popped off after a set period, floating to the surface and transmitting their data by satellite. The researcher said the data showed that only two of the 59 fish died.

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"It can always be improved upon, but that's not too bad," said Andre Boustany, a marine biologist at Duke University, who was not connected to the research.

Dr. Stokesbury's work was assisted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and the fishermen themselves. It is being peer-reviewed for publication and the findings will be presented Wednesday at a government and industry body overseeing the swordfish and tuna fisheries.

"If you do things right … you're going to have really high survival," he said. "Now the key to this is there has to be really strong governance."

Recommendations designed to keep mortality low include heavy gear to shorten fights, a type of hook that reduces flesh damage and minimal time alongside the boat.

Mr. Gauthier, who charges $1,000 for a party of four on his boat for a day, said that last year he made more off the catch-and-release than the commercial fishery. He called it "a good boost to the economy" to bring in sport fishermen.

"You got airfare, rental car, motel, restaurant," he noted. "There's quite a bit of value add to that fish, and we're getting people from all over the world."

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