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.
Doumani, who has been fishing locally for tuna for 15 years as an adjunct to his day job, said the number of tuna in local waters has been steadily increasing in recent years, as federal regulations on midwater trawling for herring and other bait fish have been tightened to allow depleted stocks a chance to bounce back from a period of severe overfishing. Having dealt in the sale of bluefin and seen the trends firsthand, Marshall agrees the fishery is becoming healthier as a result of the regulations.
"The cast started getting really good three years ago, and that definitely coincides with the restrictions placed on the midwater trawlers," said Marshall, who has traveled the globe in his line of work, working with fishermen in Croatia, Italy, and the northernmost territory for bluefin: Newfoundland. "(Northeastern fisherman) had no problem catching their quota until the midwater trawlers form Maine to New Jersey were licensed to fish here. They just cleaned out the herring supply. So when the fish came up the coast and sniffed around and saw no herring, they kept going to Canada. The herring sizes were getting smaller, too."
Now the baitfish appear to be teeming once again off the North Shore, and Doumani's monster fish is one giant indicator that the fishery is thriving.
"That's been probably one of the biggest ones caught so far in the United States," Marshall said. "They'll get bigger when they start to rod and reel the fish in October down in the Cape."
The migratory pattern of the giant bluefin tuna is pretty much dictated by the migratory pattern of herring, which follow a snowbird's schedule by wintering and spawning in the Gulf of Mexico then heading north in spring, Marshall said.
"They follow the herring all the way up the coast and follow it up all the way up to Prince Edward Island," Marshall said.
Other types of tuna can be found in the Pacific Ocean and in the Mediterranean Sea just south of Sardinia. But the variety that frequent the northeast are the ones that high-end restaurants in Los Angeles and Japanese markets clamor for because they are tender enough to be consumed sushi or sashimi style. Because Doumani's fish was caught so early in the season, though, it will likely be sold on the Boston or New York market for the tuna steaks.
"These ones have not had a chance to settle down and fatten up," Marshall said of the 116-inch "red meat" fish. "It was on the lean side and doesn't have any fat. We'll keep it in the local U.S. market. It doesn't have any possibility for sushi — you can't eat it raw because it's too tough."
It's the fat on a tuna that makes it tender enough for sushi and entitles those who boat it to a premium fee of up to $33 per pound. Doumani's fish, brought into port at the public fishing docks in Newburyport, will sell for closer to $5 to $6 a pound.
"Had the fish been fatter, it could have potentially received $10 to $20 a pound."