NEWBURYPORT — They're back and bigger than ever.
Fishermen up and down the East Coast had been fearful that the catastrophic oil spill that occurred last year in the Gulf of Mexico might disrupt the migratory patterns of the giant bluefin tuna that come north in pursuit of herring and mackerel. But an early-season 700-pound catch Wednesday afternoon off Jeffreys Ledge — a popular fishing spot about 25 miles offshore from Newburyport's Harbor — is being seen by experts as a good sign that the annual migration of the Atlantic tuna is on track.
"It's been a very good year," said Scott Marshall, who purchased the giant fish from local captain and fisherman Dan Doumani on behalf of Compass Seafood of Rhode Island. "The tuna have shown up early, and the sizes are bigger right now. We were kind of worried about the Gulf oil spill, but it doesn't seem to be a problem."
Doumani and fishing buddy Tim Healey were fishing close to Jeffreys Ledge when they saw the giant rolling near the ocean surface. They didn't know just how big it was, until they hit it, Doumani said.
"We were out harpooning," Doumani said. "We've gotten them bigger on a rod and reel, but this is the biggest one I ever got harpooning."
"The fish was just swimming lazily on the top of the water sunning itself," Marshall said. "They feed on the top of the water while it's warm, and then when the feed starts to go down deeper in late July, there won't be any more fish on top harpooned."
That's the point at which locals start to hook up with the giant finfish closer to shore. Last year, fishermen were boating 300- to 500-pounders plucked from the water just outside the mouth of the Merrimack River, in larger numbers than one would expect.