PROTECTED Bluefin tuna are among the tuna species that have come back to our waters to feed off the scrad that have replaced our stocks of herring and mackerel.
Country Sights and Sounds
The sea was steely grey, bright like new-polished pewter. Wind against tide held the waves low, allowing just the occasional one to burst with an explosion of spray. Yet they leapt at the rocks at the head of the bay with eager zeal, as a forewarning of what was to come when the tide finally turned.
We wouldn’t be out that long. A string of mackerel was all we needed. It was enough to be afloat under a stream of gulls, with migratory geese toying with the breeze just offshore and waders: oystercatcher, redshank, curlew, flying low over the waves to round the headland.
The sea gave us scad – horse mackerel. ‘Old Ironsides,’ griped James. ‘Bones outside and in.’
He’s right, although we should give this maligned creature some credit, for treated in the right way the scad is more than palatable. It takes some time to prepare, that’s all. The bony ridges that run either side of its body need not be cut away. Rather, they serve as a guide for the filleting knife. A strip from the back and another from the belly; a few swift incisions with the blade and another tasty mouthful joins the growing pile in the fish box.
We were thinking of moving once more when a pod of dolphins made their way along the coast. It was hard to count them, such was the speed of their travel. They broke surface at irregular intervals, and I wasn’t sure at all if I was looking at the same animal each time one appeared. If they were traveling like that they weren’t feeding, and if they weren’t feeding perhaps there weren’t many fish about, apart from these scad.
Then something else appeared, or almost did. All we saw was a series of foot-high water spouts in a few square meters of busy ocean. What could it be? I didn’t know, and by the time we organised the boat to go and see, the action had stopped.
I asked a friend, a professional fisherman, what he thought. He was in no doubt. ‘Tuna,’ and in response to my surprised look added “We see them often now. There was a time the sea was full of them, then a few years ago there were none. They’re back, and each year that goes by there seems to be more and more.”
What were they feeding on, I wanted to know. “Scad, probably,” he’d said. “They used to follow the herring shoals until we overfished the herring, then when we’d no herring left we lost the tuna as well. There’s still no herring, and this year even the mackerel can be hard to find. But scad – there’s millions of them out there.”
That was it then. We’ve eaten all our herrings and depleted the stock of mackerel, and the scad have filled the vacant niche. At least they’ve brought these super-predators with them. I’d like to catch one. James was in agreement.
“No chance,” said the boatman. “Unless you’re on a specially licensed vessel you cannot go near them. And even those that can, why, when they do get one they have to let it go free.”
“He’d shaken his head in disbelief, as if it was hard to comprehend how these most prized and highly valued of all marine fishes could remain out of reach. Earlier this year a prime bluefin tuna sold in a Japanese fish market for almost €3 million. Even an average specimen is worth many thousands.
The trouble is that bluefin have become very scarce, so that all EU countries are forced to conform to a rigidly enforced quota system. The amount of fish each country is allowed to take is based on what is considered a ‘traditional’ harvest, which Ireland simply does not have.
And so a few specially equipped boats are licensed for so-called ‘Big Game’ fishing on a catch, tag and release basis. At either end of the country, in Cork and Donegal, superb catches have been taking place, with some specimens of 700 and 800 pounds in weight being landed. But there is more.
“We’ve seen every kind of tuna this year. The big bluefin are there alright, but there’s yellowfin, big-eyed, albacore and bonito showing up as well.”
Can I catch one of them and eat it? It turns out that, yes, I can. Is there anywhere I could realistically expect to catch one from the shore?
“Find the dolphins. If you find them, the tuna won’t be far away.”
Now then. Isn’t that interesting?