World’s largest concentration of bluefin tuna

Leaning over the edge of a fishing boat on the Northumberland Strait, I scan the stirring waters for the giants reputed to haunt this coastline.

Salty spray splashes over the bow as Gerard McEachern guns the engine. He stops, lifts his binoculars. Shakes his head. Nothing. Beneath the surface swims the largest concentration of bluefin tuna in the world and we’re hot on their trail.

At least, I think we are. I started this adventure with visions of Ernest

Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea, but it’s starting to feel more like Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, an impossible voyage seeking an inconceivable creature.

Ken Fraser caught the world’s biggest bluefin tuna off this coast in 1979. I’ve seen tins of tuna before, so was prepared to act impressed by a dachshund-sized fish. Turns out Fraser’s giant weighed 679 kilograms.  If my math is good, that’s about 7,777 cans of tuna.

It also turns out that our province boasts the largest concentration of giant bluefin in the world, according to the Nova Scotia International Tuna Tournament. Would-be heroes gather in Halifax every year for a shot at Fraser’s record, but no one’s come close.

“It was a big fish,” Fraser modestly told me from his home in Bridgetown,

Annapolis County. Fish that size are strong – he compared landing it to hauling a safe up a 10-storey building and having it fall several times – but they lack durability.

He fought the beast for a day off the shore of northern Nova Scotia before wrestling it home and writing the adventure up in his book Possessed. Tuna aren’t the only thing caught by fishing. “Once you get hooked on it, you’re hooked,” he said.

Inspired, I headed to the Bluefin Tuna Interpretive Centre in Ballantyne's Cove, Antigonish Country. I could only Google up one phone number for the whole of the Cove and fortuitously it was answered by Mark MacInnis, who turned out to be the most helpful tuna interpretive centre employee in the world.

I told him I was on the hunt for big tuna and wanted to sail in search of the monsters. MacInnis set the phone down for a few minutes and came back with a fisherman willing to take me out.

I drove north to Cape George Point, about halfway between Cape Breton and P.E.I., as the water flows. The final leg of the journey, the Sunrise Trail along the Northumberland Strait, is full of gold-glittering water and rolling fields. MacInnis, a teenager working his summer job, showed me around the centre. It didn’t take long.

It’s got a short film on tuna, which teaches me that the “Cadillacs of the sea” can reach speeds of 88 kilometres an hour and are prone to leaping clear out of the water.  There are photos of tuna and fishermen. There is a strong rod attached to an aged chair.

It turns out bluefin tuna aren’t canned. Instead, the meat is auctioned off to the

Japanese sushi men who fly to Ballantyne's Cove every fall. Their expert eyes and hands scrutinize the dead fish while anxious fishermen wait to learn their financial fate for another year. A big tuna can fetch $10,000. Tucked inside specially designed “tuna coffins,” the fish are flown to the other side of the world to be wrapped in rice and eaten the next day.

MacInnis introduced me to McEachern, who roused himself from a mid-morning rest and fired up his boat. We sped out of the harbour and into the open waters.

Over the rumble of the engine, I ask him what tuna fishing is like. He doesn’t go much these days, but says it can mean a three-day voyage alone at sea looking for birds in the air and fish disturbing the surface, signs a big tuna is lurking. When you’ve caught one with a strong rod, harpoon and rope, you haul it alongside the boat to drain its energy.

The dead tuna are rarely brought on board because of their size, but are dragged to land beside the boat. Unlike in Hemmingway’s world, McEachern has never had sharks steal his trailing catch.

After an hour of fishless searching, McEachern shakes his head again and turns the boat home. Our expedition has turned up nothing – but then, snark hunters and old men both come home empty handed.


Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and the author of Black Snow and The Hermit of Africville.