Giant tuna have been in short supply off the Cape in recent years. The weekend after the presidential election, giants galore appeared off Chatham -- huge schools of bluefin tuna that, according to the fish stories, were virtually throwing themselves into boats.

Giant tuna have been in short supply off the Cape in recent years. In early October there was a bit of a bite, and a number of locals and out-of-towners took advantage and then went home or put their boats away.

“Then whammo!” said Jimmy Fallon, a computer guru who is hooked on tuna fishing.

The weekend after the presidential election, giants galore appeared off Chatham: huge schools of bluefin tuna that, according to the fish stories, were virtually throwing themselves into boats.

Some guys were catching tuna that reached upward of 1,200 pounds, and at $10 to $17 a pound, depending on several criteria (size, shape, color, fat content and general appearance), that’s a pretty tidy sum of money.

What was even better, said Fallon, is that those trolling the waters in the tuna rush were all local, and most were commercial fishermen who are looking at a long, hard winter ahead.

“Guys are giddy,” Fallon said. “We haven’t had this kind of bite this close to Chatham in a very long time.”

“What just happened is pretty much unheard of,” agreed fish buyer Robert Fitzpatrick of Magura America Inc. “It’s a good shot in the arm.”

His company, one of several on the Cape, has brokered 98 tuna from the so-called “Chatham bite,” sending the chilled headless, tailless, finless fish through Federal Express out of Logan Airport, or trucking them to New York’s JFK airport to get a passenger flight to Japan. Either way they arrive at auctions overseas a few short days after they leave the water. Some remain in the United States for markets in Los Angeles, New York and Boston.

The excitement builds

The excitement at the fish pier and docks at Stage Harbor was reminiscent of a decade ago when boats waited in line to unload their catch and crowds would descend to see the huge fish hoisted up to be measured and weighed. The tuna that arrived in the summer and stayed for a while were once a big part of the economy around the elbow of the Cape. Even small groceries and sub shops near the waterfront were able to thrive in the early fall because of the crowds and the cash.

The giants were dubbed “Toyotas” because fishermen were able to buy a foreign truck with the money they earned from the sale.

But the tuna bonanza began to drop off by 2000 and by 2003 it was difficult to find any of the giants around.

“It’s been horrific,” said Fitzpatrick, who has been in the tuna buying business since 1991, but recently had to diversify because fishermen weren’t catching enough of the fish.

This year things were looking up even before the recent bite, he said. His company had already sold about 250 fish, which is much better than in recent years. That number doesn’t compare to the 1,000 or so it sold in the company’s heyday. Some say the absence of tuna is due to the depletion of herring, a favorite food of the blue fin, by large factory trawlers that suck up legions of the fish. Others point to the growing number of dogfish, which are protected by regulations and compete for the bait. Still others say it is a combination of factors, but all agree big tuna has been in short supply here.

“If you didn’t look at Canada you’d say the fish have disappeared,” said Molly Lutcavage, of the Large Pelagic Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.

She has been studying tuna for years and noticed that although the fish over the Hague Line in United States waters were small, those in Canada were getting larger.

“So there may be a change in distribution,” she said, adding that question is one of many about the fascinating fish that her team is trying to answer through pop-up tags and cooperation with fishermen.


Overfishing has also been a problem. Eastern nations, around the Mediterranean Sea, are decimating their tuna populations, which “no doubt” affects our fish, said Lutcuvage.

An International Convention of Atlantic Tuna, ICAT, meeting, which started this week, was expected to rein in fishing in the east. The west, including the United States and Canada, has had stringent controls in place for years.

“Overfishing is not occurring in the west,” she said, adding that fishermen have barely caught 20 percent of the quota in recent years.

Locally, the shift in population could be related to a change in food availability for the fish at the top of the food chain, and to buttress that theory local tuna fishermen point out that mid-water herring trawl pairs are banned in Canada.

This year it seemed that finding quality bait in the area was no problem for the tuna. A November bite is “atypical” said Lutcavage, but the season has been a little weird as well, adds Bob Prescott, director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. 

“The water is still warm and there is a ton of bait,” he said. “I think it was a late season all around.”

There’s a lot of saury – a long, slender, silver fish – in the area as well as squid and a few other tuna tasties, Prescott explained, adding that butterfish, which can arrive on Cape as early as late July, didn’t show until the last week in August.

Tuna don’t have to be out of here, he said. If there is food to be had they’ll stay.

“It’s just a feeding frenzy,” he said.   A ‘true oceanic spectacle’

The sight of the “apex carnivore” feeding can be as spectacular as a whale watch. “It is really one of the true oceanic spectacles,” Prescott said. “They are definitely charismatic.”

Fallon won’t disagree about the allure of the big fish; he is hooked on the hunt. He caught a 500-pounder last week, one of the smaller ones, he said. By the time he got out to the grounds on Monday, around 7:30 a.m., there were boats that already had two tuna – the limit is three a day – hanging off the side.

He may have been a little jealous, but that paled in comparison to the empathy he felt for guys who fought for hours with a fish, only to have it escape the line.

“Some guys lost four fish … that’s brutal,” he said.

Another sad reality is since the weather has changed and the ocean has gotten a bit snotty, it looks like the tuna bonanza is over.

“I think it is going to end,” Fallon said.

Commercial fisherman Tom Smith confirmed that unhappy premise. He was out almost every day during the rush and was able to snag three that weighed more than 1,000 pounds. He went out again earlier this week and saw some other boats, but no tuna.

Doreen Leggett covers Chatham and fishing issues for The Cape Codder. She can be reached at 508-887-3224 or e-mail