Catching Just the Right Fish

  • October 07, 2015
  • by Doug Struck

I want a more sustainable way of harvesting tuna. I don’t want the lifestyle of fishing to end. Captain Thien Duong Nguyen

Twenty-two miles off the coast of Louisiana, Thien Duong Nguyen throttles back the twin diesels of his 80-foot steel fishing boat, the Queensland. In years past, he would uncrank the massive spool in the stern, feeding the choppy Gulf of Mexico waters with 35 miles of fishing line bristling with 900 hooks offering frozen squid and sardines.

He and his crew would let the hooks soak 200 feet deep for six hours or more, and then haul up the prey he had been seeking, a few valuable yellowfin tuna and maybe a swordfish. His catch would emerge along with a litter of other creatures he had not sought, known as “bycatch”: wahoo, mahi-mahi, escolar, albacore, small sharks, an occasional endangered sea turtle—and a magnificent and rare ocean speedster, the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

But on this day, Thien does not touch the spool. Instead, he demonstrates a new technique with a 40-foot-long green stick—bamboo in its original form, fiberglass now—bolted upright on his deck. He runs about 800 feet of line from the uppermost tip of the pole out to a wooden sled towed from the stern. From the sloping line hang seven gaily colored plastic squid on hooks.

Thien pushes his engines to a loud growl, pulling the sled like a ski. He grabs the line with a calloused right hand and yanks. The dangling squid bounce over the surface like flying fish fleeing a pursuer. The charade is for yellowfin tuna. If he can make the plastic squid dance just right, Thien has found, the yellowfin tuna—and yellowfin only—cannot resist the chase. They leap from the water for the squid, and are hauled onto Thien’s deck without the bycatch he does not need or want.

“The secret is to keep the squid bouncing,” says Thien, a compact man with a wide smile who left his native Vietnam in 1982 and helped form a community of Vietnamese fishermen in Louisiana.

Aboard the Queensland, Thomas Wheatley is watching this new chapter in a long-developing success story. Wheatley, who manages ocean conservation programs in the Gulf of Mexico for The Pew Charitable Trusts, has been working since 2009 to bring the “green stick” fishing technique—borrowed from the Japanese via Hawaiian fishermen—to Gulf longline fishermen, whose barbed hooks rake through the only known spawning grounds of the western Atlantic bluefin tuna. How to protect those beleaguered fish, captured as bycatch as fishermen seek yellowfin and other species, has been a bedeviling challenge for fisheries managers. And now, with Pew’s help, this new, fruitful method is ready for prime time, allowing crews to avoid inadvertently snagging bluefin.

Four fishermen in Louisiana and Florida have tested the gear for two seasons. Thien and his friend, fellow captain Peter T. Nguyen, have proved that with the right boats, the gear can work.

“The bluefin that get to the Gulf have made it for at least eight to 10 years. They’ve run the gantlet of hooks up and down the coast, and they’ve made it here to spawn,” Wheatley says. “So ending the bycatch here is important to help bring these beautiful fish back.”

PCT_DulacLA_041_km_OWNKatye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

These plastic squid, when danced across the water, prove irresistible to yellowfin tuna.

The population of bluefin found in the western Atlantic is not listed as endangered, but the fish have a precarious hold on their ocean tenure. Their numbers are estimated to be half what they were in the 1970s—and scientists estimate that the fish were already depleted by fishing then. The population started to plummet in the 1950s, when Japanese and American fishermen began to target them on an industrial scale. Dead or alive, the bluefin draws admirers, wowing anglers and scientists, chefs, and connoisseurs. It is built for speed, its body an aerodynamic engineer’s dream complete with a perfectly balanced shape, a dorsal fin that retracts into a rigid slot like an airplane’s landing gear, and a powerful tailfin that propels it forward with none of the inefficient back-and-forth body motion typical of large fish. And it has been clocked at more than 40 miles per hour.

It is warm-blooded, a rarity in fish, and is content cruising in warmer upper waters, often with its dorsal fin cutting what Carl Safina described in Song for the Blue Ocean as “a faint chevron bulging ever so slightly from that molten, glassy sea … a wake without a boat.” Yet its circulatory system also allows it to recapture the heat from its muscles and dive deep into frigid canyons in the middle of the ocean.

The bull of tuna, the bluefin can grow to 10 feet and weigh 1,500 pounds. Combined with its speed, its size and strength make it especially attractive for sports fishermen who pay top dollar for charter boats to take them far out to sea in pursuit.

For decades, the Atlantic bluefin’s oxygen-rich circulation traditionally made its meat too red and bloody for picky eaters. Successful anglers often left their prize dockside to be turned into cat food after the celebratory photo. New England purse seiners once netted whole schools of the fish, and Japanese longline boats sailed right to the western Atlantic bluefin spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.

Attempts by individual nations to curb Atlantic bluefin fishing have long been ineffective because the fish roam the oceans and swim in so many territorial waters. And efforts at international controls for the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea population, by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, were so lax that critics bitterly joked that its acronym stood for the “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.” In 2008, an independent consultant for the commission called its efforts an “international disgrace” and “a travesty of fisheries management.” Two years later, in his book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg glumly concluded that bluefin was, “in all respects, an unmanageable fish.”

But as outrage grew over the ravaging of the eastern Atlantic population, members of the commission tightened quotas—with encouraging results. There was enough of an uptick in the estimated populations in both the east and west that in November 2014 the commission adopted a 14 percent increase in catch quotas for 2015 and 2016 for the western Atlantic bluefin and a 20 percent annual increase for three years in the quota for eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin. And last April, U.S. fisheries officials removed the western Atlantic bluefin from the list of stocks subject to overfishing (when fish are caught faster than they can reproduce), though western bluefin remain severely depleted. The head of sustainable fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, Alan Risenhoover, calls the Atlantic bluefin’s fledgling recovery a “success story.”

“The good news is we have ended overfishing,” he says. “Now the stock can rebuild.”

But the rush to proclaim victory at the first signs of improvement worries those who see it as premature for the long-range rebuilding of the species.

“There is definitely evidence that the population has grown,” says Amanda Nickson, director of Pew’s global tuna conservation project. But, she adds, “there’s still a sense that the nascent recovery is at risk. I think we’re a long way from declaring victory and going home.”

Stumped by the long record of inadequate protections for this fish, Pew in 2010 turned to finding new techniques to help fishermen and protect the bluefin. A four-year effort followed to demonstrate the environmental and economic benefits of the new techniques to federal regulators and fishermen. Starting in April and May of 2015, those federal regulators prohibited longline fishing in large parts of the western bluefin spawning grounds to help the fish recover. At the same time, after years of frustration for environmentalists, U.S. fishing authorities have begun tightening restrictions on bycatch, vowing to adopt and enforce quotas that include all dead Atlantic bluefin caught at sea, and monitoring compliance through cameras mounted on the fishermen’s boats.

The tighter rules are nudging fishermen to think about the new techniques. “I’ve heard about the green stick, but I’ve never used it,” Dong Tran says as he takes a break from sanding his boat to watch the Queensland tie up in Dulac, the scrubby Louisiana port 14 miles up a canal from the Gulf that’s home to the Vietnamese shrimp and longline fishing fleet. But, he acknowledges, “I have seen the other two captains get some fish. Maybe the catch would be less, but the quality of the fish would be better. I’d try it.”

The novel fishing technique was introduced to the Gulf in part because of the frustration of Pew and other groups trying to get U.S. fishing authorities to crack down on bycatch of bluefin in its spawning grounds. The green stick was used by Japanese fishermen, adopted by some fishermen in Hawaii, and tried by a few others, primarily off the coast of North Carolina.

“We wondered if these things would work in the Gulf of Mexico,” recalls Lee Crockett, director of Pew’s U.S. oceans program. Pew gathered scientists, fishermen, and state and federal officials at a workshop in Galveston, Texas, in 2011 to consider the question. “At the end, it was remarkable. It was unanimous,” he says.

But to introduce green stick fishing in Louisiana required navigation of two formidable cultures: fishermen and Vietnamese-Americans. Each has its challenges: Fishermen are loath to change long-tested ways in which they make their living, and those in Dulac are further set apart by their language and shared hardships.

“It’s a pretty insular community,” Crockett says of Dulac. “We had to find a way in.”

Bailey Farnsworth/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Click to view the full illustration.

Most of the Vietnamese-Americans in Dulac are “boat people” or descendants of those who fled the former South Vietnam in the years after the United States withdrew in 1975. Many of them suffered in the early years of communist rule in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam before escaping. Thien’s father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was incarcerated. “We were very, very hungry,” recalls Thien. “My brothers and sisters were very small because they had no food.” In 1982, Thien agreed to captain a narrow boat packed with 80 people who each had paid three bars of gold to attempt the dangerous trip from Vietnam to Malaysia. Despite a harrowing finish on a storm-tossed coast, where Thien threw infants to waiting arms ashore, all made it alive.

The other fishermen have similar stories. Peter, a former soldier who says he lost the fingers and thumb on his right hand to a small bomb during the war, says fishermen with boats packed their families on board and sailed to Malaysia or farther, then ditched the vessels and left everything else behind.

Many made their way to the United States and wound up in Louisiana, shrimping and longlining to make use of their fishing skills. But life in their new country was not easy; there were territorial and cultural struggles with the local fishermen, says

Bobby Nguyen, who was born in the United States and has served as a bridge between Pew and the fishermen. Today, the Vietnamese-American community in Louisiana has grown to nearly 30,000 people.

But Bobby and the others say those earlier tensions have subsided. “Once [Vietnamese fishermen] figured out the fishing in the Gulf, it was ‘game on,’ ” says Bobby, whose father was a shrimper.

There is little dispute that the bluefin ought to be protected during its once-a-year spawning period. Atlantic bluefin have only two known breeding grounds: the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

In the spring, the western Atlantic giants—mature fish often 300 pounds or more and thought to be at least 8 years old—migrate from all corners of the western Atlantic to the Gulf and Florida Straits. There, they swim in tight groups that seek circular eddies in the warm waters to release and fertilize millions of eggs.

“These are the huge fish, the big spawners. They are there to reproduce, and so they are the most valuable fish,” says Pew’s Crockett.

In 2014, U.S. managers completed regulations that prohibited all commercial surface longline fishing in nearly 27,000 square miles of the Gulf during the peak of the bluefin spawning, each April and May.

For the other months, however, longline fishermen are still on the water, seeking the bluefin’s smaller cousin, the yellowfin tuna, as well as swordfish, another long-distance roaming fish. The yellowfin are not endangered, and their firm white flesh goes to sushi or onto plates in seafood restaurants, along with albacore and bigeye and skipjack tuna.

The majority of the bluefin snared as bycatch on the longlines are dead or dying when they are hauled aboard, and Crockett says more than 400 a year are dumped back into the water.

“I don’t think anyone was naive to the fact that the bycatch was high and longliners were exceeding the quotas,” says Jason Schratwieser, conservation director for the International Game Fish Association, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“We were seeing upward of 100 metric tons a year in discard from the Gulf alone. It’s not small. And, really, those numbers are only part of the story. The only reason the tuna are in the Gulf is to spawn. So every individual fish that was caught was special, there for a reason.”

GULF_Greenstick07_km_OWNMax Appelman

Yellowfin tuna, like this one, are easily caught with the green stick, fetching $600 to $700 per fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

This year, in addition to the Gulf spawning closures, NOAA Fisheries put into place hard quotas on the bluefin bycatch. Legal-size bluefin brought up dead—victims of exhaustion, overheating, and other predators from their time on the longlines—must now be kept and counted, and the fishermen must pull in their lines and quit when they reach the quotas. Cameras with wide-angle lenses are bolted onto the boats to record on-deck activities, and authorities will spot-check the videos to see that the rules are being followed.

These are powerful incentives to avoid hooking bluefin. The Deepwater Horizon spill added impetus and money to the effort. “The oil spill changed the landscape here,” says Pew’s Wheatley. Ironically, the Deepwater oil well blowout, which covered about 20 percent of the bluefin spawning grounds with oil, helped the protection effort by adding greater urgency and badly needed funding.

BP recovered some of the oil, sold it for $23 million, and turned the funds over to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. From that came a grant to Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to run the $700,000 green stick pilot project in 2012 and 2013 that financed Thien and the three other captains.

Their catch was monitored closely. And “of 181 fishing days in which the gear was deployed in the boat, 1,850 animals were caught,” says Tony Chatwin, acting vice president for science and evaluation for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “Of those, there were zero bluefin tuna.

“Bycatch is a reality in fishing,” he says. But “the numbers that the green stick performance showed were pretty amazing.”

In sun-baked Dulac, though, the fishermen are more interested in what the green stick technique does catch than what it doesn’t. There are 35 Louisiana longline permit holders, about 25 of them active, and most of them are Vietnamese-Americans who fish out of Dulac. In the early days of the pilot project, they watched Thien and Peter steam out with the towering green poles jutting from their decks—only to return, days later, with meager catches.

“It took a while to get used to the green stick,” says Thien, sitting in the huge captain’s chair of his fishing vessel, steering with a bare foot on the boat’s wheel. Off the port side, bottlenose dolphins breach in the distance.

He says he found that if he pulled the green stick sled too fast, the leaping yellowfin missed the bait. Too slow, and the fish weren’t interested. Through trial and error, he figured out that yanking repeatedly on the line made the plastic squid “fly” over the water, luring the yellowfin. Then, one day, Thien and Peter returned to dock with five yellowfin and found that the longliners had been shut out, with no tuna in a dozen days at sea. Thien and Peter’s catch wasn’t huge, but with an average yellowfin fetching $600 or $700, it was enough to convince the others.

Tom Huynh, captain of the Morning Star, says that when he saw Thien and Peter’s catch, he “knew it would work. But having the right boat is the big question.”

That is the greatest challenge, the fishermen have discovered. To get to the tuna highways far out in the Gulf requires almost three days of travel each way. To run the big steel fishing boats takes a crew of four, and the twin diesels gulp fuel—as much as $7,000 worth per trip.

To make those trips pay, the longliners stay in the Gulf for 10 days to two weeks and set their miles of hooked line more than a dozen times to get enough fish. Using the green stick avoids most of the bycatch but yields fewer yellowfin tuna. The expeditions would be more profitable if the boats equipped with the green sticks were smaller, with more efficient engines and smaller crews, and could get to the tuna grounds and back faster—with fresher catch.

“The gear works,” says Wheatley. “Now, it’s how to make it more cost-efficient.”

The NOAA Restoration Center, which is administering the distribution of the first $1 billion of BP’s payments to aid recovery from the spill, has proposed setting aside $20 million to reimburse surface longline fishermen who agree to stop fishing with longlines for six months a year when western Atlantic bluefin are in the Gulf, to allow the species to recover. In addition, NOAA is considering paying longline fishermen to convert to green sticks for yellowfin fishing to further protect bluefin, which could happen beginning in 2017. Pew is hoping the grants will help some of the fishermen replace their hulking steel vessels with more efficient 50-foot fiberglass boats outfitted with green sticks.

The Louisiana captains say they are willing. “You see so much bycatch—what a waste,” says Thien. Adds Peter, “The green stick is better for the next generation and the fish itself.”

In food-crazy New Orleans, 70 miles from Dulac, some of the top restaurateurs are rooting for the green stick.

“Chefs have two interests. They want the fish now. But they also want the fish for the future,” says Harry Lowenburg, an organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans.

“We worked with a tuna they got on a green stick, and it was amazing,” chef Nick Lama says as he putters about the tables of his newly opened restaurant, Avo, in West New Orleans. Without the sea-to-plate delay of the longliners’ two-week voyages, the green stick tuna “was as fresh as it could be,” he says.

“We are very fortunate to be able to have fresh seafood on our doorstep,” he adds. “It’s our responsibility to make sure it’s protected.”

Customers now ask questions about the health of fish stocks, adds Patrick Singley, proprietor of the top-rated Gautreau’s restaurant. “People are much more aware of natural resources than they were 10 years ago.”

Wheatley and other conservationists predict the green stick will be the fisherman’s tool of the future, as restrictions on bycatch get tighter. “It’s like the saying goes, if you build a better mousetrap, people will want it,” Wheatley says. “It’s better for the ocean, for the fish, and for the fishermen.”

For Thien, the lens of this goal is all too familiar. He and many of the other Vietnamese-Americans in Dulac risked much to make a better future—for themselves and for their children. They understand the importance of investing for future generations.

“I want a more sustainable way of harvesting tuna. I don’t want the lifestyle of fishing to end,” the captain says as he steers his boat through the flat green water of the Gulf. “The tuna can’t be overfished.”

Doug Struck is a senior journalist in residence at Emerson College, where he teaches and reports on the environment.