CONWAY, Mass A Massachusetts fishing crew accidentally netted a 881-pound Bluefin tuna, but officials confiscated the huge fish because rules require the species be caught only with hand-held gear or harpoons, the ship's captain said on Tuesday.
Notified by his crew of the remarkable catch on November 13, Captain Carlos Rafael said he raced to meet the boat in Provincetown, thinking a bluefin of that size could fetch as much as $500,000 at a premier world fish market such as Japan.
He arrived to find state environmental police and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agents had seized the fish because it had been caught in a trawling net, which is forbidden.
Under the international Atlantic Tunas Convention Act, it is illegal to catch Western Atlantic bluefin by methods other than rod and reel, hand-line or harpoon, NOAA says.
According to NOAA, Atlantic bluefin tuna need to be carefully managed because they are extremely valuable and thus vulnerable to overfishing.
The crew on the New Bedford, Massachusetts boat caught the fish in a trawling net off Gloucester while fishing for ground species such as pollack and hake, Rafael said.
Rafael said the bluefin drowned in the net. He received a written warning for the incident but no criminal charges.
The fish was sold domestically for $5,000, and the proceeds will be held until the case is resolved, said Christine Patrick, spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries in Silver Spring, Maryland.
"I was disappointed. The fish was a perfect fish," Rafael said.
A 754-pound bluefin in prime shape sold at a Japanese auction last year for nearly $396,000, according to local media reports.
Rafael said he would have preferred to give the fish away than see it sold for so little.
"At least I could have given the fish to a homeless shelter," Rafael said. "I would have been a hero for giving all these people food, instead of them selling it for $5,000."
After the value of Western Atlantic bluefin tuna soared in the 1970s, fishing increased dramatically and the population plummeted. Today, the number of bluefin able to reproduce fluctuates at 21 to 29 percent of the 1970 level, NOAA said.
"Now, if you accidentally catch it with a different kind of gear, or even if you catch it with the right kind of gear but you don't have a permit for it, you have to let it go, even if it's dead," according to regulations, said NOAA's Patrick.
(Reporting by Zach Howard, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)