SI Vault
Dan Levin
October 04, 1971
For years the lobstermen of Prince Edward thought their waters were filled with sharks. Then one of them sent for a book, discovered that those surfacing wraiths were tuna—and angling had a new Mecca
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October 04, 1971

An Uptight Little Island

For years the lobstermen of Prince Edward thought their waters were filled with sharks. Then one of them sent for a book, discovered that those surfacing wraiths were tuna—and angling had a new Mecca

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Fall in the North Atlantic, the currents of life quicken. Great birds grow restless and suddenly are gone. Sensing change, shoals of fishes gorge themselves on smaller ones. And though ecologists still cry doom, with cause, the strangest things are happening: the weakfish have returned to Long Island: at Nantucket the bluefish are bigger than ever; and, most stirring of all to anglers, off Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province, the largest bluefin tuna ever seen are being caught.

Last fall a giant bluefin weighing 1,040 pounds was taken there, the first half-ton tuna ever on a rod. And so were 10 others weighing more than 900 pounds—more bluefin that size than had been caught in all the annals of the sport. Then, just south of Prince Edward, with winter closing in, a fish of 1,065 pounds was landed off Nova Scotia; it had just left Prince Edward, the natives said, and scientists were inclined to agree. So it hardly comes as a surprise that last month the man who caught that fish, Glen Gibson of River Bourgeois, Nova Scotia, tied his boat to a Prince Edward dock, or that a 941-pounder has been taken, this one by Albert van der Reit, a South African who has a lifetime bluefin catch of 77 fish. All the world's big tuna men are on Prince Edward Island now, gathered in body or in spirit on this brand-new paradise.

There are other tuna ports, of course, legendary ones such as Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, for 25 years synonymous with tuna angling, until the quarry vanished; Bimini, where the tuna have come north each spring for decades; Point Judith, R.I.; Provincetown on Cape Cod; and, more recently, Conception Bay and Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland. But they are forgotten now by the big-time tuna fishermen, all but forsaken for Prince Edward Island, where only five years ago tuna was something the natives bought in little round cans at the North Lake grocery store.

For centuries the only large fish around the island were sharks, huge ones, or so the lobstermen claimed. 'There's no point learning to swim," they'd say. "If I fell over, how far would I get?" And then in 1967 a Nova Scotian, Bruce Oland, came up and landed an 855-pound tuna, the first bluefin ever taken in the province on rod and reel. The next year a few local lobstermen went out, and with very little knowledge got 14 more, two of 930 pounds and one of 960, the three largest tuna taken anywhere in the world that year. The fall of 1969 produced 31 tuna, one of 970 pounds, a mere seven pounds under the world record that had stood for 19 years. In 1970 there were 99 tuna caught off Prince Edward, including the 1,040-pounder, and nearly all were landed from half a dozen old lobster boats fishing two or three miles out of one small harbor, North Lake.

For tuna anglers the whole thing appears to be an agreeable accident of nature. Prince Edward Island lies in the shallow Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is above the crags of Nova Scotia and only 160 miles southwest of Newfoundland, where summer is a brief interval between icebergs and icebergs and swimming is a sport for seals. But the island belongs somewhere else. In summer the gulf is as warm as the waters off Atlantic City. Vacationers from Maine have been known to drive 250 miles north for the first comfortable swim of their lives.

What brings the world's largest tuna to Prince Edward? Only one man has seriously studied the question—James S. Beckett, an ichthyologist with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. "The St. Lawrence is a gigantic nutrient pump," Beckett explains. "In coastal waters each spring there is a burst of phytoplankton. The plankton depends on mineral salts for growth, but in most areas these are depleted in a few weeks and the plankton growth is reduced. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, though, the warm river water is especially fertile. The river also creates a season-long upwelling of deep, mineral-rich water in the gulf. The level of phytoplankton produced is maintained, providing continuous forage for the larger zooplankton and on up through shrimp and young herring and mackerel, the bluefin's favorite food in the area. And, of course, the distribution of large predators is dependent on the food supply." Research indicates that the Gulf of St. Lawrence around Prince Edward Island is the biggest mackerel spawning area in the western North Atlantic, and there is very little commercial pressure on the mackerel. "Underharvested" is the word Canadian authorities use. The tuna have come to harvest.

No scientist has studied the island itself, however. Prince Edward is often called "the Million-Acre Farm," and from the air it resembles a vast gently rolling, multicolored quilt: neat rectangles and squares of mustard yellows, deep and pale greens—potatoes, hay, oats, wheat and barley—and the brick red of the fertile soil. If the St. Lawrence River's fertility is important, then Prince Edward's many rivers must also be a factor, considering the land they drain and all the nutrients they wash to sea. Probably this explains why first the mackerel and then the tuna have come so close to shore.

But none of this accounts for where the tuna were until 1967, a mystery whose solution may be credited to a burly, 52-year-old former commercial fisherman named Wesley Fraser. Fraser had fished out of North Lake all his life for lobster, cod and mackerel, despite the sharks, whose dorsal fins dotted local waters from July until early winter. Fraser is a bright, engaging, vital man, but like most islanders he never paid too much attention to what went on anywhere else. Life was exciting enough at home. At times it was a challenge just to row across North Lake, a big tidal pond connected to the ocean by a dredged, quarter-mile channel where the tuna boats now dock. One Sunday afternoon in 1939 Fraser was out in his skiff when he saw "a huge shark, right in the lake. The damned thing came up under the boat, knocked the oars from my hands and near capsized me. It was the closest I ever came to drowning.

"A week later we set a mackerel trap and caught it. I'd never seen one that close, but it certainly looked like a shark to me. It had that big fin, you know. It was exactly 11 feet long and it weighed a thousand pounds."

Soon afterward another one came into the lake. Fraser was digging clams on a nearby flat when he saw the fish stranded with the falling tide. So he ran home and told a friend, who came back with a .22 rifle and shot it. Something kept bothering Fraser, though. He wanted to know if this was the same kind of shark he had been seeing all his life. As he wondered, a dozen years went by—who could answer such a question?—but in 1952 he "wrote an uncle of mine up to New Haven, Conn. and he got me a book from the library that had information as to what the different kinds of fish looked like." The book came, Fraser studied it and—confusion—the pictures of sharks did not look like the sharks he had grown up with at all. But other pictures did, pictures of tuna. Finally he returned the book to New Haven, where his cousin paid a 23� overdue fine. Fraser was convinced his "sharks" were bluefin tuna. The next step was to catch them.

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