The crew of the fishing vessel Apollo thought they had won the lottery. On Nov. 12, the New Bedford, Mass.-based 86-footer unintentionally netted an 881-pound bluefin tuna, which can sell for upward of $500 a pound in Japan if it is of premium quality.
Their elation was short-lived, says Carlos Rafael, the boat’s owner, because fisheries agents confiscated the catch at the dock. Rafael, 59, has 15 tuna permits, but he didn’t read the fine print when he applied for them. He can only keep tuna landed by rod and reel.
Tuna was not the Apollo’s quarry, says Rafael, who owns 42 boats, all based in New Bedford. “It just got caught in the net,” he says. “For all the aggravation this has caused me, I wish I’d never seen that [fish].”
The crew was trawling for groundfish — flounder, cod, sea bass, monkfish, haddock, “everything else but tuna” — when it netted the bluefin 70 miles off Gloucester, Mass., probably while setting the nets, Rafael says. The five crewmembers trawled for two hours. Unbeknownst to them, the tuna thrashed about in the net so that when they hauled in the giant fish it was dead. The crew notified Rafael, who reported the catch as required.
Bad weather forced the crew to put in at Provincetown, Mass. When they docked, fisheries agents were waiting. It didn’t matter that Rafael had tuna permits. It didn’t matter that they netted the tuna accidentally. Bottom line: It was an illegal catch.
The agents confiscated the tuna, then turned it back to Rafael to sell it. He turned it over to a fish broker, who judged the fish prime because of its high fat content. However, the fishermen didn’t land the tuna alive and bleed it immediately, so blood permeated the flesh, seriously compromising the fish’s value. “We’d have lost money if we sent it to Japan,” Rafael says.
He says the broker sold the fish for domestic consumption for probably $11 or $12 a pound. The broker took his cut of the selling price — a couple dollars a pound, Rafael says. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pocketed $7 a pound for the confiscated fish, and Rafael and his crew got nothing except a warning citation for catching a bluefin tuna with a net.
Rafael says catching a bluefin tuna in a trawl net is a once-in-50-years occurrence, but if it should happen again his crewmembers are under orders to throw it back — dead or alive. Rafael has found a silver lining in all of this. After the media coverage of the catch, he says, he signed a four-month contract with The History Channel to film winter fishing on several of his boats for a reality series on Northeast fishermen that starts in April.
“Sometimes you fall in sh** and come out smelling like a rose,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.