After two intensive weeks of fishing, the 2008 bluefin tuna satellite tagging program had made good strides towards the goal of deploying 25 pop-up satellite tags. Although New Zealand’s winter weather hasn’t been great this season, we’ve managed to tag 21 bluefin by the end of August.
The first week of September brought a spate of unpredictable weather, making it difficult for several days to figure out when to go out again. On September 4 the call was made to go out for another charter with Captain Chinner, and crew Josh, Bryce and Andrew aboard Cerveza II. The west coat of New Zealand is dotted with numerous fishing ports that require crossing over submerged sandbars. Greymouth is one these ports, and its bar can be troublesome for even the most seasoned and confident skippers. On this trip, Chinner’s unrivalled experience and iron clad confidence navigated us through a gauntlet of white capped waves that would have chased many other skippers back to the docks.
Figure 1. Cerveza II leaving for a bluefin trip from Greymouth’s harbour greeted by ocean waves across the local sandbar. Photo: Pete Idoine
With those obstacles behind us we motored for the hoki trawlers, about 35 miles offshore. However, the unpredictable weather was worsening, and not improving as forecasted. By nightfall winds were up to 35-40 knots and conditions weren’t fishable, so we hunkered down and stopped fishing for several hours to let conditions ease down again. When things settled back down we moved back to the hoki trawlers and put lines in the water. After a few hours we hooked up, and the fishers who chartered the boat got the one they wanted for ‘kai’ (Maori term for food) to share with family and friends upon returning to port. One +200kg plus bluefin provides a lot of kai for a lot of people, so the next was to be satellite tagged. In the early morning of 5 September we hooked up to a bluefin to be satellite tagged. With a chop still on the water, deckies Josh and Bryce got the fish to the stern. However, the leader clipped the boats trim tabs in the process, and was frayed and weakened as a result. Within mere seconds of tagging this fish, the weakened leader broke and with a swift kick the bluefin disappeared. After being battered for much of the last day on the water, it was particularly disappointing to loose this fish, but that is the nature of this work.
After putting in a few more hours of unsuccessfully trying to hook another, it was time to head back. As we headed in the weather finally eased back and the trip back was swift in the calmed seas. Thankfully, the charter Oracle was headed out for a new charter at the same time we were returning. Oracle’s skipper Mike Boswell generously agreed to let me ‘tag along’ on his trip too.
Oracle takes a different approach to bluefin fishing by using only stand-up gear instead of the more commonly used fight chair in New Zealand’s big game fisheries. Oracle arrived at the hoki trawler ‘Rehu’ in early evening and lucky angler Peter Idoine was the first to hook up soon after his line was wetted. Pete had never been big game fishing before (although had caught some yellow tailed kingfish previously). Learning to gamefish for the first time by using stand up gear on giant bluefin is akin to introducing someone to the rodeo by strapping him straight into the saddle with a bronco. Pete proved to be a natural and showed great poise in bringing his fish to the boat in just over 2 hours though.
Figure 2. Pete Idoine battling his first bluefin, with Tim holding onto the back of his belt for good measure, and deckie Aaron looking on in the background. Photo: Pete Idoine
With Pete’s fish landed it was time to chase another for tagging. As the clock stroked 11pm on the night of 5 September, line began screaming off of the reel again as we’d hooked another bluefin. We had no clue what was in store for us with this fish though. When using stand up gear on bluefin, it is not uncommon for the fish to outlast more than one angler, requiring the rod to be passed to fresh legged fishers. However, it is less common for one fish to outlast 8 anglers and wreck at least 4 different gimble belts over a 12 hour period! It was as if the beast hooked on the end of this line was Michael Phelps embodied as a tuna if you considered each of the 8 anglers he beat a gold medal in the gamefishing Olympics!
Anglers Peter, Grant, Peter, Yab, George, and Tom lined up to take turns battling this fish. When passing the rod from one angler to another, it took all hands on deck to unseat the bent rod from one anglers gimble belt and reset back into the next angler's gimble belt.
Figure 3. Four people struggling to unseat the rod from the anglers gimble belt so it can be passed onto the waiting angler behind while the bluefin continues his unrelenting battle. Photo: Pete Idoine
Around 5am I went for a nap as there were no signs of this fish surfacing soon. I awoke around 7am to fresh sunshine and angler number 5 online with this same fish and no indication that it was anywhere near as tired as the 4 other guys who had taken turns online with it. Eventually angler 5 relented to angler number six who eventually relented to anglers seven and eight, who were actually two guys who’d already been online with it in the previous night. Finally as the clock passed 11am this bluefin surfaced and George (man number eight) dug deep down to get it to the stern. And then as suddenly as this fish was initially hooked, it just as suddenly flicked it tail, catching the line on the boat’s hand rail and snapped the line. After more than 12 hours this bluefin was gone in less than a second!!! An exhausted disbelief fell upon everyone aboard, and the decision was made for everyone to get some sleep. Everyone was spent, and we needed to recoup for a second night of fishing.
We awoke in the late afternoon and chugged back to the hoki trawlers for another go at luring a bluefin online with a yummy piece of defrosted hoki. Although I was on the boat to tag fish and was not anticipating catching one, the anglers wryly told me I’d have to share the pain in catching the next fish if I could have a chance to tag it. I agreed as I was there to tag and was the only non-crew member there who hadn’t been online with the 12 hour beast. After dark we hooked up our 3rd fish which was initially fought by two anglers who were still weary from the 12 hour battle. Angler 3 was me, so the gang converged to help pass the rod over. The heat was on both literally and figuratively as I could feel my thighs burning and I had been at sea for roughly 50 hours without tagging a bluefin yet. Thankfully, this fish capitulated to the stern in 45 minutes, but to my dismay the decision was made to keep it instead of tag it. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the anglers for allowing me to join them on the trip they had chartered. It was a privilege to experience a giant bluefin on stand up gear. Everyone, including the anglers as well as captain and crew of the Oracle are first rate!
Figure 4. Tim hooked up with Tom anchoring the back of the gimble belt. Photo: Pete Idoine
Oracle’s mission was complete, but yet again as one charter completed, another was about to begin. Chinner happily agreed to take me along on his next charter again, so I immediately joined them for another try to tag bluefin with one of the four tags remaining to be deployed.
Reuniting with Cerveza II was welcome under the settled and more favourable weather than the last trip. The charter on Cerveza this time was a group of farmers from outside of Christchurch who’d come to experience bluefin fishing and likewise bring a bit of kai home. I explained what the project was about, showed them some satellite tags, and explained the value of this research. Once they’d landed a fish to bring home, they were happy to allow any others to be tagged for this research. Cerveza II and numerous other boats in this fishery have a policy of no more than one bluefin landed per charter to ensure they are also contributing to the equally rewarding pursuit of tag-and-release fishing. By the early morning of 7 September we hooked up to another bluefin. After a relatively short 30 minute time this bluefin was calmly lead to the stern by wiremen Josh and Andrew and after more than 65 hours at sea this time out, the 22nd bluefin of the project was satellite tagged. At an estimated 250kg, it was quickly tagged and upon release it swam away with a calm flick of its tail. At 4:50am, a few hours after releasing that fish another was hooked. It was a livelier bluefin than the last and it was online for 50 minutes before Josh and Andrew brought it to the stern. They positioned it perfectly for a solid tag shot. And with that, this bluefin estimated to be 220kg became the 23rd bluefin satellite tagged in the 2008 project.
As often happened in 2008, the bite turned off at dawn and within a few hours Cerveza II turned for home. This leg of the project was quite eventful and challenging. But with 23 bluefin tagged, the bluefin team at Stanford, Blue Water Marine Research and Auckland University are quite happy with the achievements of 2008. Two satellite tags remain with Chinner who might have an opportunity to tag this week on his final charter of the season. Chinner has seen and done it all before and we’ll be grateful if he can put these last two out. But if not…well we wait with ‘baited’ breath for the data from these other 23.
We also heard from the crew of one of the commercial hoki trawlers that they could see several satellite tagged and conventionally tagged bluefin swimming under their boat, feeding on hoki scraps as the nets were hauled aboard. Great news to give us another shot of confidence that things are going well!