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In the race for the bluefin in PEI, profits go over the side

On the first day of Prince Edward Island's most recent bluefin tuna season, Doug Fraser hooked a fish as fat as a barrel, a monster weighing some 540 kilograms.

The huge bluefin turned out to be the biggest caught off PEI in 2010, securing Mr. Fraser an award this week from the Premier. On that October day, though, the 57-year-old Alberton resident was too keen to get back on the water to think much about setting records.

Bluefin tuna, whose culinary cachet is causing a worldwide decline of the stocks and sparking calls for trade bans and fishing restrictions, were hitting hard and fast in PEI waters last fall. But the celebrations were short-lived. The catch glutted the local market and drove down wharf prices.

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The result is raising serious questions about how this valuable resource is managed. Ottawa's decision to assign a quota to the fleet as a whole encourages a gold rush mentality, especially when the catch is as good as it was last year. Fishermen have no incentive to wait in hopes of higher prices because others might fill the quota in the meantime.

"It's hard to hold back the boys' appetite when there's fish being caught," said Mr. Fraser, who has fished tuna for two decades and was out on his 14-metre boat last October with crew member Brian (Bubba) Boyce. "Use it or lose it. Tomorrow or next week, they may not be out there."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesman Joe Troxler said decisions about "resource management" are based on conservation, socio-economic considerations and the long-term stability of the fishery.

But Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, said individual quotas could prevent what he called the "race to the fish."

Fishermen know that they have to solve the problem themselves, and started meetings on Friday. One idea being kicked around this year is giving each licence-holder a tag for a single tuna with any remaining tags raffled off. That way fishermen can make an individual decision on when to go out.

But everyone remembers that a few holdouts prevented agreement last year, starting the stampede.

"All you need is two or three fishermen to say, 'I don't agree with [the plan]and I'm going,'" said Walter Bruce, chair of the bluefin advisory committee of the PEI Fishermen's Association. "Then it all falls apart. You need 100 per cent."

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In 2010, the average price at the wharf for PEI's tuna was barely $15 a kilogram. The fishery added a welcome $2-million to the local economy, but many were frustrated the return wasn't higher.

"They could've made twice the money," said Wayne MacKinnon, spokesman for the province's Department of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Rural Development.

Low prices for bluefin are incongruous given its fame. Dubbed "the king of all fish" by Ernest Hemingway, the bluefin is highly desirable in Japanese cuisine. Also one of the most politicized of fish, its viability is hotly disputed. Efforts last year to stop the international trade were rejected amid acrimony at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which sets quotas worldwide.

Last year, Canadians were allowed to catch a total of 517 tonnes of bluefin. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans distributed the allotment among several provincial fisheries, with PEI getting the biggest portion, about 132 tonnes. That was filled in two days.

The profitability of the province's tuna fishery has fluctuated over the years. It boomed in the 1970s, when air-freighting fish to Japan become economically feasible. Those were the glory days, and old-timers remember getting $55 to $65 a kilogram.

Mr. Fraser has no idea where his record fish ended up, but the trade route to Japan remains popular.

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Scott Marshall, a Massachusetts-based buyer and grader for Compass Seafood, said that 95 per cent of the bluefin his company buys in PEI goes to Japan. A fish can be caught on a Monday, trucked to Halifax on Tuesday and arrive by plane in Tokyo on Thursday. The fish tends to be too big for the capital's market, but is sought after in other cities, particularly Sapporo.

Auction prices vary wildly depending on size, quality and what else is coming to market at the same time.

Mr. Marshall said PEI bluefin is desirable in Japan because it is wild-caught on a line, has been eating good feed and comes from a good water temperature. Last year, though, prices sagged under the oversupply.

"They do themselves a disservice because they can't get in a room with DFO and decide how to [schedule]their fishing," he said.

Mr. MacKinnon, the provincial fisheries spokesman, said his department has tried to persuade fishermen to spread out their catch to maximize the return on a desirable resource. But it has no authority over the quota system.

"About the only thing we can do is [offer]moral suasion," he said. "And that doesn't work very well."

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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