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Updated: November 9, 2021

UMaine research to bolster bluefin tuna industry

silvery fish swimming Courtesy / University of Maine New research aims to bolster sustainable management and grow the market for western Atlantic bluefin tuna.

A new study of western Atlantic bluefin tuna population data is expected to improve management practices and a valuable marketplace for fishermen from Maine to Texas.

Thousands of commercial and recreational fishermen capture the tuna, one of the strongest and fastest predators in the open ocean, off the East Coast each year. 

The tuna is “among the most sought-after commercial fish in the world’s oceans,” University of Maine assistant professor Walt Golet said in a news release.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded Golet, a research assistant professor with the School of Marine Sciences, more than $276,000 to lead a team of researchers who will collect and analyze updated the animal’s population data. The new data will help reduce uncertainties in assessment models that estimate the amount of fish in the fishery, which can help guide management practices and prevent overfishing, he said.

Golet was also awarded almost $300,000 from NOAA for a project to help bolster the industry. The research includes developing best practices for handling, particularly cleaning and chilling the fish, and outreach to improve consumer perceptions and markets. 

Gulf of Maine migrator

Bluefin tuna can be over 11 feet long and weigh more than 1,500 pounds. The fishery is distributed across the entire north Atlantic basin. A single fish could be worth tens of thousands of dollars, though the average price per pound today is only a fraction of what it was historically. 

Commercial landings for bluefin tuna equaled 2.4 million pounds and were valued at $9.6 million in 2019. 

“Atlantic bluefin tuna are a seasonal migrator to the Gulf of Maine and an important top predator in the ecosystem,” said Golet, who is located at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “They also provide a locally sourced, sustainable and high-quality source of seafood and help to support the coastal communities of Maine.” 

A large component of Golet’s research centers around the collection and analysis of biological samples, which are used to improve stock assessments for highly migratory species in the Atlantic. His studies to date have provided regulators updated age, sex, growth and stock composition data, work he will continue using one of his NOAA awards. Lisa Kerr, a research scientist with Gulf of Maine Research Institute; and NOAA research fishery biologists Matt Lauretta and Robert Allman will work with Golet on this project. 

With assistance from dealers and fishermen across Maine and the East Coast, Golet’s lab has sampled over 12,000 bluefin tuna since 2011. With the new funding awards, he and his team will collect and analyze biological samples from more than 1,000 tuna during the year-long project. The analyses will identify where the fish comes from, size and age of each fish, as well as the type of gear used to catch it.  

Updated stock assessments and existing regulations and oversight for Atlantic bluefin tuna help conserve what Golet said “is the most sustainably managed of the three species of bluefin available globally,” more so than the Pacific and Southern species. 

Market declines

Atlantic bluefin tuna fishermen, however, face barriers that inhibit their ability to reel in consumers. 

According to Golet, overseas markets and prices have declined in recent years due in part to changing global economies, improper handling of the fish at sea, higher shipping costs and overall lower quality fish.

The industry sees opportunity in domestic markets, but Golet said consumers don’t always know that local, well-managed supplies of bluefin tuna exist in the Gulf of Maine and other locations along the East Coast. 

Golet and co-principal investigator Kyle Foley, GMRI’s sustainable seafood program manager, will explore best practices that could help fishermen enter domestic markets and gain better access to ones overseas. 

The two also plan to create an outreach campaign to promote the fishery as a local, sustainable option for U.S. consumers. Their efforts will include direct buyer engagement via workshops in Portland and Boston and an event in association with Seafood Expo North America, and local and national media advertisements.     

“Atlantic bluefin tuna are a locally sourced, high protein and sustainably managed fishery readily available to the U.S. consumer,” Golet said. “Many people are not aware that the majority of U.S. seafood is imported, which does not directly support U.S. fishermen. Expanding markets for bluefin tuna in the U.S. supports small-scale U.S. fishermen, their coastal communities and domestic bluefin fisheries that adhere to some of the strictest regulations in the world.”

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