When catching a bluefin tuna meant a $7,000 payday

Chasing a massive fish promised a rich return for fishermen off Nova Scotia in 1990 -- or a frustrating and fruitless effort.

Markets in Japan made the effort worthwhile for fishermen in Canso, N.S., in 1990

Tuna boom in Nova Scotia

32 years ago
Duration 4:35
In 1990, a single tuna and some patience can earn up to $7,000 each for lucky fisherrmen.

Chasing the bluefin tuna promised a rich return for fishermen off Nova Scotia in 1990 — or a frustrating and fruitless effort.

"Fifty to 60 boats have come here from all over the Maritimes, drawn here by the giant bluefin tuna," said the CBC's Paul Withers, reporting from Canso, N.S., for CBC's 1st Edition on Oct. 2, 1990.

Withers said that in previous years, only about six such fish had been pulled from local waters annually.

But more recently, that number had climbed to about 50 specimens.

'Tuna bonanza'

Equipped with a large rod and reel mounted at the stern, a tuna boat prepares to set out early in the morning in search of the lucrative catch. (1st Edition/CBC Archives)

"It has been a tuna bonanza for this area," said Graham Bond. "The fish are numerous out here. They're seeing a thousand a day, the biggest kind."

But as P.E.I. fisherman Gary Gormley knew all too well, there were no guarantees of success.

"This here game, it's a lot of luck," he told Withers. "So far, my luck has been pretty bad."

But the payoff was considerable for the lucky ones, and Paul McLellan from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans spelled out.

"When they do bring a fish, at a good price, they may be looking at six or seven thousand dollars for the fish," he said. "It's like winning a lotto ticket."

According to the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator, $7,000 in 1990 is equivalent to $12,200 in 2020.

A CBC crew followed a boat for the day as it headed out to try reeling in one of the big fish.

On the hunt

"I've had one bite in seven weeks," said P.E.I. fisherman Gary Gormley. "I'm getting pretty tired of it." (1st Edition/CBC Archives)

Withers said the "big-money fish" always seemed to be jumping in the tuna grounds, a 10-mile strip off Canso, which was on the northeast tip of the Nova Scotia mainland.

They gained "two or three pounds a day" on their journey north from the Caribbean by eating "bait fish" that swam on the surface — conditions the fishermen attempted to replicate to lure them in.   

"A live mackerel is suspended from [a] kite," explained Withers. "The kite keeps the mackerel on the surface ... When the fish takes the bait, it can take an hour to reel it in."

As the sun set, the tuna boats returned. Withers said most of them were "empty-handed," but some "excited bystanders" were on hand at the wharf as the lucky few returned with a catch.

"Quite a thrill'   

An American boat, the Cookie II, had reeled in 14 tuna in two months. (1st Edition/CBC Archives)

"It's quite a thrill," said a smiling Don Macaskill, as a huge tuna was hoisted by the tail. "It's a big rush ... you'd have to experience it to really understand it."

Buyer Frank Milligan sliced a steak from the tail of the tuna, which was destined for "a sushi bar in Japan," said Withers. 

"They're specialists in tuna, and they really know what they're looking for," said Milligan, who was assessing the colour of the flesh.

The next steps in processing the fish involved sawing off its head and tail, removing its "guts" and plunging the body into a tank of ice-filled water, known as the "coffin." 

"It's a nice tuna," said Bond, who weighed the fish at 933 pounds. "Really good average for this area."

"I was in the bow laying down and I heard a screech, and I just went at 'er," said a Alfred Richard, relating the story of how his crew reeled in a tuna. (1st Edition/CBC Archives)

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now