A tuna, an old fish tag and the captain behind it all

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“You see ’em?” asked Capt. Russ Benn, pointing at the slick-calm surface. I almost jumped out of my deck boots at the sight of at least a dozen large shadows, one of them the size of a compact car, speeding this way and that, down deep where daylight faded. Nearer the surface, the electric-blue backs of the tiny skipjack tuna I’d been watching swarmed, picking off the silvery bits of butterfish chum as they slid down-drift out of the hull’s shadow-line.

Zach Harvey

“You’d better go heavy on that chum for now,” said Benn, motioning toward the big Carolina bow headed straight for us at a full gallop. “As you can see, we’re about to have some company.”

I nodded on my way toward toward the ladder. I’d almost reached deck when he spoke again. “Oh, and whatever this guy says or does, if he says or does anything, just ignore it. Nod and smile. Do what you need to get done, and let me handle it.”

The approaching boat, which had been headed across our stern at a fair distance, veered toward our transom, slowing down, surfing her wake and gliding to within 50 feet or so of our port quarter. I watched as her captain kicked the stern around, revealing four of the folks in his charter, an arsenal of rods and reels, a mate, and several totes of chum. Seconds later, the skipper, his face the color of rare steak, lurched from the helm down into the cockpit and unleashed a furious, barely intelligible stream of accusations and insults in our direction.

Who the hell is this guy? I wondered. I gathered, from the fragments I picked out of the air, that we were fishing in his spot — a timeless classic in the genre of charter-captain scream jobs. I didn’t dare mention that we’d been fishing his spot for two weeks, totally unaware there was a landlord.

Capt. Al Anderson has been tagging and releasing fish for more than four decades.

The enraged newcomer dumped half a tote of chum off his transom and backed down on the bait violently, presumably to spread it out, to spook the fish out from under us, twin diesels roaring, exhausts billowing gray-black smoke. Ten minutes later, after what amounted to a brief but intense seizure of fishing, the big express jumped up and shot east. And so ended my first professional encounter with the man. Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only Capt. Al Anderson.

Most skippers who fish southern New England waters have an Al Anderson tale. I’ve heard the man raked over the coals by a whole host of his contemporaries and colleagues in the charter fishing racket. Time and again, I have heard men who more or less despise him concede, their voices just above a whisper, some variation of the phrase, “I have to admit, he’s a pretty damned good fisherman.”

For my own part, I’ve worked with Al in numerous different professional contexts — as a journalist, as a mate, as an editor of his work, as a fellow angler. Over probably 12 years, we’ve exchanged a few sharp words at intervals, but on balance, there’s been a measure of respect in our dealings. Our families have eaten dinner together. We’ve become friends. Gradually, I’ve just accepted that the guy is wired differently. Then again, in the world of fishing, that could as readily be said of a hundred other good fishermen representing any major port in the United States.

More than just “wired differently,” Anderson, 75, has some of the singular ambition that belongs to forward thinkers in any industry. He is, among other things, a reformed meat fisherman. For years the guy honed fish, big ones, and found professional meaning, as many sharpies of his generation did, in shellacking competitors. At some point, his fish-biology background led him to conservation. The shift was abrupt and total.

The truth is that whole industries, whole causes move forward on the shoulders of those willing to hold a course despite ridicule or outright hostility from colleagues — despite the very real possibility that few if any of their colleagues will notice, much less understand, appreciate or encourage, their work.

Anderson carries uncommon disdain for meat-monger captains or clients, and there’s almost no pragmatic separation between his principles and his policies. On his boat, Prowler, he enforces both with extreme prejudice.

Anderson’s life work has been tagging fish for science, and he’s marked and released an astounding number of fish — tuna, striped bass, sharks and billfish, mostly — for various agencies and specific studies over a long career. He deployed his first tuna tags in 1967 — primitive, stainless-tipped dart tags he obtained from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution secondhand via big game legend Bob Linton — and logged his first recapture in 1971. In the years since, he has put tags into nearly 8,000 tuna, and somewhere in the order of 48,000 striped bass. And while recapture rates are not mind-bogglingly high as a rule, the information certain recaps have yielded has made tangible contributions to our scientific understanding of bluefin tuna and striped bass in particular.

Anderson made headlines this winter when one of his tags was recovered from a fish estimated at over 1,200 pounds. Research on that tag revealed that it had been “at liberty,” affixed to that fish beside the first dorsal fin, for an astounding 16 years, placing it among a tiny handful of other tags out for similar periods. This behemoth specimen was caught by the longliner On A Mission, out of Williamswood, Nova Scotia, more than 700 miles east/northeast of port in September 2013. It had survived untold tens of thousands of migratory miles and who knows how many millions of hooks, stickboats, sharks, billfish and myriad other threats since its first encounter with steel many moons ago (about 190 full moons, to be more specific).

Almost as remarkable is that the tag itself, a barbed plastic dart and a bright streamer with tag number and other data, stayed put all that time on a fish that swims at speeds of 45 to 50 mph. That was back in summer, 1997, when one of Anderson’s clients, Michael Arcangelo of Bristol, R.I., boated a football-sized juvenile tuna whose weight the skipper figured was around 14 pounds. That fish — and an estimated 95 percent of the other tuna Anderson has marked — landed in Prowler’s cockpit in an area called the Mud Hole, east/southeast of Block Island, R.I.

While the novelty of this prodigal giant’s 16 years on the lam caught the media’s eye, Anderson was quick to clarify that many other recaptures over his nearly 50-year tagging career have had larger implications for bluefin migratory patterns. Notably, dozens of tags returned from the other side of the Atlantic have helped to dispel long-held assumptions that there are two distinct, isolated populations of bluefin tuna — an eastern Atlantic stock and a western. Over the years, Anderson’s tags have come home from Turkey, Corsica, Sicily, Libya, Spain, the Baltic Sea and other far-flung corners of the ocean, tipping the old notion that bluefins couldn’t cross the Atlantic on its head.

In fact, between roughly 1975 and ’85, the Fisheries Service stopped publicizing all trans-Atlantic tag recaptures because the agency, which publicly backed this “two-stock” theory, feared that mounting evidence to the contrary generated by its own tagging program might call its scientific credibility into question and ultimately cost the tagging program critical grant funding. The petty politics of the arrangement sent the combustible Anderson into orbit, as a scientist as much as a fisherman.

The two-stock distinction has global gravity, especially in the present day. Developing nations around bluefin nursery grounds in the Mediterranean are penning up wild fish — and possibly the future of a threatened stock on our side of the pond — at a furious clip, with almost no regard for international conservation statute. But that’s a different story.

While I’ve long understood some of the bad blood between other captains and Anderson, I’ve more recently come to see and understand Anderson’s perspective. Where sportfishing communities in other parts of the country seem to have been much more receptive to key aspects of conservation, the overwhelming majority of ports in the Northeast have long meat-fishing legacies — few places more so than Anderson’s home port of Point Judith, R.I. Charter fishing there has long been understood as an investment in filleted freezer ballast as much as an exciting day on the water.

Anderson, whose charter rates are more than double what many of his competitors charge, has for years refused to trophy-hunt except on occasions when he knows big fish will be tagged and released, and actively discourages clients from keeping as much as regulations permit. These are policies that have cost him clientele and led many of his competitors to dismiss him as arrogant.

What I think has been widely misunderstood about the man is that his singular, Ahab-grade commitment to fish tagging and conservation is not a gimmick or publicity stunt. Again, Anderson is a man who has made policy of principles, even when many of those principles run against the main current of the community around him. The world rarely embraces such men in their own time, but it surely needs them and seldom forgets them.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

April 2014 issue