Nova Scotia

Bluefin tuna becoming 'just like pets,' says filmmaker

A new documentary on the Atlantic bluefin tuna says the giant fish are exhibiting unusual behaviour after they migrate into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where some are being hand-fed by fishermen in the open ocean.

New National Film Board documentary explores puzzling behaviour from ocean giants

A still from John Hopkins' documentary, Bluefin. (Bluefin/Square Deal Productions)

A new documentary on the Atlantic bluefin tuna says the giant fish are exhibiting unusual behaviour after they migrate into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where some are being hand-fed by fishermen in the open ocean.

"One of the things that has happened is they have lost their fear of human beings. They are just like pets. They are being fed over the side by fishermen," said filmmaker John Hopkins of Square Deal Productions.

The behaviour made filming the tuna much easier, he said, but it is puzzling.

No longer skittish

Hopkins's National Film Board documentary, Bluefin, premieres at the Atlantic Film Festival on Wednesday. The 53-minute film chronicles the resurgence of bluefin tuna near the fishing port of North Lake, P.E.I., billed as the tuna capital of the world.

Hopkins and fishermen he interviewed said tuna used to be elusive and skittish. No more.

The film argues the tuna arriving off North Lake are starving because herring and mackerel are getting scarce elsewhere on the east coast of North America. It also raises the prospect that the tuna may disappear off P.E.I. if the herring population does too.

Filmmaker John Hopkins said bluefin tuna have lost their fear of humans. (CBC)

For now the tuna are back and in a big way.

"Things are really changed. They disappear for 10 years because they were worth $40,000 a fish; everyone went after them and wiped them out pretty much. Then all of a sudden they come back. They started to trickle back in 2004, now they've got this incredible phenomenon. It's a perfect storm of tuna. They've never seen so many," he said.

Scientist says tuna are remnants 

Environmentalists and scientists say tuna need protecting.

Dalhousie University oceanographer Boris Worm likens the tuna returning to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to a last herd of buffalo roaming after the animal was wiped out everywhere else on the plains.

He said the tuna are remnants of a larger population that has disappeared from much of the Atlantic Ocean since the 1960s.

"The fish that are seen off of North Lake they are the giants. They are the big breeders, obviously important for keeping the population going. Fish by and large, the older they get the more eggs they produce and it's not in a linear fashion. It's in an exponential fashion, which means the fish that is twice the size may produce 10 times the eggs than a fish half its size," Worm told the filmmaker.

One of the film's points is that people do not see tuna as wild creatures, valuable in their own right, but as food on a plate.

"If it was a land animal it would be revered. Nobody would ever allow it to get close to extinction. But because it's a fish, it's sort of out of sight, out of mind, cold and scaly. People don't seem to have that same reverence," National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry told the filmmaker.

Not endangered

But not everyone is convinced tuna need protecting.

"There's not a chance they are endangered," says one fisherman in the movie. North Lake fisherman Jeff MacNeill is unabashedly in favour of tuna fishing. He questioned the science and the scientists.

"The scientists they grew up in a school. They have all these theories and all these numbers. What do they actually know? How can they say there's no tuna left when you can put a guy over the side of boat and there be 15 come right to him," MacNeill said in the movie. 

He is scheduled to attend the premiere Wednesday at 12 p.m. at Park Lane Theatre in Halifax.

The different opinions do not surprise filmmaker John Hopkins.

"The fishermen consider the stock pretty well rebuilt because they've never seen so many in their lives," Hopkins said.

Environmentalist Heather Grant of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax told CBC News there are signs of recovery, "but we're not seeing rebuilding where it needs to be."

"The most recent stock assessment says the population is 55 per cent of where it was in the 1970s and by then, tuna had already been fished very hard," Grant said.

Last month the federal government decided not to list the bluefin as a species at risk, which would have shut down the fishery entirely.

An international commission will set Canada's quota fort this year in the fall. 


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.