It is not only the pay that has dropped. Numbers of tuna caught, although slightly better than the last two years, have been down from preceding years. This prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to rescind restrictions on days fishermen could go out in September, and to allow them to take two tuna per boat from Sept. 1 through 15. Brad McHale, Fishery Management Specialist for Highly Migratory Species Management Division at NMFS, said as of Sept. 14, slightly more than one-half of the 666.7 metric-ton-quota of the General Category (which includes individual fishermen) had been taken. In Maine, the season traditionally begins to wind down during September.
At Sea Horse this season, a total of 106 fish had been brought in by Sept. 15. Doug Scott, manager, says the highest price paid this summer was about $14 per pound. The lowest, $3, was offered at the beginning of the season when quality was poor. Generally, he says, fishermen got at least five or six dollars a pound, and averaged around eight to ten. In the years before the decline in prices, he says, bluefin brought as much as $25 to $30 a pound, with an all-time high at $50 per pound.
Scott noted that this season, tuna have been smaller than in past years, ranging from 158 pounds to a single fish that weighed over 600 pounds, with an average of about 300 pounds. “In better days, we would see a lot more at 600 to 700 pounds,” he says. Also, he says, fat content seems to have been lower in general this season.
George Leone, a buyer who owns Morgan Harvest, agrees. “There’ve been some decent fish, in early to mid-August,” he says, “but the fish caught in July weren’t fat, and recently, fat content has fallen off.”
Like everyone involved, Scott is not sure why the price is lower this season, but he believes the weak Japanese economy doesn’t tell the whole story. “That influences it somewhat but not all,” he says. “Buyers have found they can buy cheaper than they were paying. They’re not offering as much.”
Leone points out that bluefin caught by purse seiners off the New England coast have further depressed the auction. “There are four or five boats that have an allocation every year,” he explains. “They began to fish in August.”
Steve Murphy, who owns and operates International Tuna Marketing and has been buying at the Sea Horse Auction for several years, emphasizes that larger forces are at work in this risky business. “The industry has changed,” he says. “First, there’s the economic downturn in the primary countries. “All of these fish are going for Sushi, and that’s a luxury food item. People who had all the big money just aren’t being as extravagant.
“Then there’s a steady year-round supply of fresh bluefin from other places. I used to have customers in California who would buy Boston bluefin in the summer and have it blast frozen in big portions. Later in the year, they would thaw it and have this really high quality bluefin available.” Now, he explains, a steady supply is available year-round because bluefin tuna caught by Mediterranean and Australian purse seiners are transferred to on-board tanks and then to pens, where they are fed for weeks until ready for the market. “You can buy fat fish cheap from Spain and Australia,” Murphy said. “They might not be quite as good, but for a chef dealing with the bottom line, no problem. People no longer insist on buying yesterday’s catch.”
The bottom line, says Murphy, is that “nothing is static. The supply and demand have changed. That’s why fishermen aren’t getting the prices they used to get.”