The Sideshow

Man catches 881-pound tuna, seized by feds

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow

UPDATE: This morning I was contacted by NOAA's Monica Allen, who provided some great information and context to yesterday's story. For those who worried Mr. Rafael was being denied a substantial payday, it turns out that because of the tuna's deteriorated condition due to the trawl net, the fish sold for just under $5,000.

Yesterday, NOAA posted an update to their site on why the specific regulations for the bluefin tuna are in place. It's worth taking a look. I've included some highlights from my conversation with Monica Allen at the bottom of the post.

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A Massachusetts fisherman pulled in an 881-pound tuna this week only to have the federal authorities take it away. It sounds like a libertarian twist on the classic novella by Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, but for Carlos Rafael, the saga is completely true.

Rafael and his crew were using nets to catch bottom-dwellers when they inadvertently snagged the giant tuna. However, federal fishery enforcement agents took control of the behemoth when the boat returned to port. The reason for the seizure was procedural: While Rafael had tuna permits, fishermen are by law only allowed to catch tuna with a rod and reel.

It would seem that unlike the fictional New England shark hunters in Jaws, Rafael didn't need a bigger boat, just a better permit.

In an interview with the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Rafael disputes the claims from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA)  enforcement division that the humungous tuna was trawled from the bottom of the Atlantic. "They didn't catch that fish on the bottom," he said. "They probably got it in the mid-water when they were setting out and it just got corralled in the net. That only happens once in a blue moon."

And while Rafael is denied the mother of all fish stories, the federal impoundment of his catch also means he's probably losing out on a giant payday. A 754-pound tuna recently sold for nearly $396,000. NOAA regulators do not share any of the proceeds from the fish's eventual sale with a fisherman found in violation of federal rules.

"They said it had to be caught with rod and reel," a frustrated Rafael said. "We didn't try to hide anything. We did everything by the book. Nobody ever told me we couldn't catch it with a net."

Rafael says he has meticulously prepared for a giant catch like this, purchasing 15 tuna permits over the past four years for his groundfish boats. He even immediately called a "bluefin tuna hot line" (yes, such things exist) to report his catch. "I wanted to sell the fish while it was fresh instead of letting it age on the boat," he said. "It was a beautiful fish."

Proceeds of the sale from the fish will be held in an account until the case is resolved, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement. "The matter is still under investigation," said Monica Allen, deputy director with NOAA Fisheries public affairs. "If it's determined that there has been a violation, the money will go into the asset forfeiture fund."

UPDATE (CON'T):

"We understand why the fishermen, his crew and everyone was excited about this giant animal. This is an amazing fish," Allen said in an interview with The Sideshow.

"We understand the fisherman inadvertently caught this tuna and although he had purchased permits to catch tuna these permits did not allow the catch or landing of bluefin tuna in a trawl net. The permits he had required the use of specific hand gear, a rod and reel, a harpoon or a handline, to catch, land and keep such a tuna."

Allen explained that the bluefin tuna off the coast of the U.S. has been depleted to between 21 and 29 percent of their historic population

"This rule is important to the conservation of this unusual fish that is severely depleted and managed internationally by more than 48 nations," Allen said. "Because they are slow to mature and reproduce, rebuilding this species population is a lengthy and difficult process."

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