Sunday, June 26, 2022



False albacore—more properly known as “little tunny,” although I’ve yet to meet my first fisherman who actually refers to them that way—are a cult favorite throughout the mid-Atlantic and southern New England.

They’re not the best-tasting fish in the sea.  Unless you bleed them thoroughly and ice them down immediately after they’re caught, and then eat them the same day—generally as sashimi with soy and maybe a bit of ginger or wasabi—most Americans find them inedible, and even some pampered cats will turn up their noses at the prospect of a false albacore dinner.

However, the fish can fight.  Pound-for-pound, they’re probably the hardest-fighting fish that’s readily available to the inshore angler; even surfcasters can usually get in on the action, at least around inlet jetties and along certain favored stretches of coast, when albacore blitz bait in the fall.  The same oxygen-charged muscles that give them their deep red, strong-tasting flesh imbue the false albacore with strength and speed, the very things that make it attractive to anglers.

False albacore are also the perfect size fish for light-tackle anglers.  Most that I’ve caught probably weighed between six and 10 pounds, although I’ve landed some in the mid-teens.  The New York state record, which was caught just about one year ago off the South Shore of Long Island, weighed 18.05 pounds, which provides a good idea of the largest fish that one might run into.  

While false albacore superficially resemble tuna, and belong to the same family, Scombridae, they belong to the genus Euthynnus, not the genus Thynnus, to which the bluefin, yellowfin, and bigeye belong.  That can make things a little confusing, for within Thynnus lies another fish just called “albacore,” Thynnus alalunga, so when fishermen just talk about catching “albacore,” as they often do, it pays to understand just which albacore they’re talking about.

From a scientific perspective, false albacore are what fishery managers deem a “data-poor species.”  Biologists know that they can be found throughout the tropical and temperate Atlantic, and also in the Mediterranean and Black seas.  They know that false albacore eat smaller fish, squid, and some crustaceans, that they like warmer water, and that they can be found in both inshore and pelagic habitats.  But some important questions, such as the size and status of the stock, and the presence and extent of local population, remain unknown.

Right now, false albacore are an unmanaged species all along the Atlantic coast.  The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council removed false albacore from its Coastal Migratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plan in 2012, and neither the other Atlantic coast councils nor that Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have chosen to pick up the management baton.  Since 2017, recreational catch has averaged a little under two million fish per year, with no clear year-to-year trend; about one-quarter of those fish were landed.  No one knows what percentage of the released fish survive.

Commercial little tunny harvest seems to be slightly above the recreational landings, averaging a little over 500,000 pounds annually during the period 2016-2020, again with no year-to-year trend.

From a federal fishery management perspective, the key question is whether those landings are enough to suggest that false albacore are in need of conservation and management.  Right now, scientists lack the information needed to provide an answer, but a recently announced study promises to shed the first bits of light on that issue.

The American Saltwater Guides Association has teamed up with the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life to conduct a pioneering study of false albacore migration patterns and release mortality.  Offshore wind developer Orsted, along with sunglass manufacturer Costa del Mar, will provide the necessary funding.

It’s a logical project for the Guides’ Association.  As noted earlier, false albacore are a very popular target for light-tackle anglers on the Atlantic Coast; according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, recreational fishermen made more than 425,000 directed false albacore trips last year.  Many of those trips were undoubtedly made aboard boats belonging to Guides' Association members.  It’s thus in the Association’s best interests to do what it can to ensure that the false albacore stock remains healthy.

The study will take place in Nantucket Sound, south of Cape Cod, where scientists from the Aquarium, working from boats belonging to Guides' Association members, will surgically implant acoustic tags in 50 false albacore.  The study area hosts an array of acoustic receivers maintained by the Aquarium.  Any time one of the tagged false albacore passes close to a receiver, the receiver will record a “ping” from the tag that includes an identifying number unique to that fish.

If a fish pings a few days after release, it will be a good indication that it survived the experience, although not receiving a ping does not mean that a fish has necessarily died; it may merely have traveled outside of the receivers' range.  However, over the course of the study, detections of fish passing near a receiver will establish the upper boundary of release mortality, although the actual release mortality level could be somewhat lower.

The acoustic tags will also allow scientists to determine the migration patters of fish caught off New England, and help determine what the false albacore's population structure might be on the East Coast.

That’s because the acoustic tags implanted in the false albacore do not only interact with the array of receivers in Nantucket Sound.  They can be detected by an expansive network of receivers, placed along the entire East Coast by cooperating scientists, who share access and information with one another.  Thus, if a false albacore tagged in Nantucket Sound swims through an array located off Long Island, North Carolina, or the Florida coast—or a host of places in between—the researchers at the New England Aquarium will be notified.

Thus, researchers will be able to learn whether the false albacore that summer off Cape Cod and Nantucket belong to the same body of fish that show up off North Carolina late in the fall, or off Florida during the winter, or whether they belong to a local population that, perhaps, moves offshore and on with the seasons, instead of migrating north and south along the coast.

With only 50 fish tagged—acoustic tags are expensive—it may take a while for results to come in. 

At the same time, because acoustic-tagged fish don’t have to be recaptured, the way conventionally-tagged fish do, but need only pass by a receiver to produce data, information might begin to start flowing in quickly.

Regardless of how long it takes for the data to be gathered, the study should represent an good first step in developing data about a species that, with the decline of striped bass and bluefish, is becoming ever more important to the recreational fishery on the Atlantic coast.

Last Thursday, I wrote about the conflicts between scientists and fishermen that spring up when the scientists develop data that tells a story much different from the one that fishermen want to hear.

The Guides’ Association’s false albacore project depicts the other side of that coin:  Fishermen and scientists working together to develop data that will both add to the scientists knowledge of an under-researched fish, and help ensure the future health of a stock that makes an important economic contribution to the recreational fishing business.

It’s a perfect example of a cooperative win-win.

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