Landing The Big One

March 1, 2003 by Tom MacGregor

Mexico’s Juan de Dios de la Torre and fisherman Dick LeBlanc celebrate after landing a 655-pound tuna in September 1957.

The bluefin tuna is one of the giants of the deep sea. Very active and strikingly colourful, it can sprint at a speed of 80 kilometres an hour. Most spectacular is the way it hops straight out of the water, startling seamen and inspiring legends of the deep, some of which got started in the tiny Acadian fishing village of Wedgeport, N.S.

For several decades in the middle of the last century, Wedgeport–located roughly 30 kilometres southeast of Yarmouth on the province’s southern tip–was the best place in the world to fish bluefin.

The fishing village’s reputation attracted the likes of novelist Ernest Hemingway, American business magnate Michael Lerner, pioneer airwoman Amelia Earhart, singer Kate Smith, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Tony Accardo, known as Joe Batters, one of the hit men in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Hemingway saw his first tuna in 1921 when he was on a ship in the harbour of Vigo, on Spain’s northwest coast. It was a six-foot fish that leapt “clear of the water and fell again with a noise like horses jumping off a dock.”

The man who would go on to write The Old Man And The Sea, the Nobel Prize-winning novel about one man’s struggle with a giant marlin, claimed that anyone who could land a tuna that size could “enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods.”

Wedgeport’s tuna legacy contains numerous references to the torpedo-like fish, and the various challenges anglers have faced in trying to catch them. Today, there is no more sport fishing for tuna in Wedgeport, and the commercial fishery in the village of 2,000 operates with closely measured quotas and tightly controlled licences. But for many who live in the area, the history is something to preserve and use to help resurrect a new, but smaller sport fishing industry.

Nowhere is the dream kept alive more vividly than in the small Wedgeport Sport Tuna Fishing Museum and Interpretive Centre. The modest one-storey building has a coffee shop adjacent to where local fishermen gather when they are not out on the Bay of Fundy or Georges Bank.

Recognized in 1992 by the Nova Scotia government as the Historical Sport Tuna Fishing Capital of the World, Wedgeport draws tourists primarily from Canada and the United States. People who have never heard of the village are pleased to discover it, and often fascinated by its history.

The museum itself has become a tourist attraction, serving bus loads of Americans who have taken the ferry from Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth in the summer. They are drawn mostly by the stories of the 1930s.

“Mr. Accardo never liked people knowing he was in the village,” explains Blair Boudreau, the museum’s president. “When he went out fishing he would sit on a chair with his back against the captain’s cabin where no one could see him. He would only sit in the open chair when a fish was hooked.”

It is an era that 89-year-old George LeBlanc, a resident of Veterans Place, an extension of the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, recalls well. “I’m just about the last of the fishing captains,” he says. “I even got a cup.”

The cup is in reference to the Sharp Cup awarded to the top sportsman in the International Tuna Fishing Match. Though the trophy would go to the winning angler, the captain of the boat received a small replica. “It wasn’t that big a fish,” he says modestly. “Only about 600 pounds.”

Full-grown bluefin can reach more than 1,200 pounds. They don’t breed until they get to be 300 pounds. The tuna is part of the mackerel family of fishes. They consume large quantities of fish, crustaceans and squid–up to approximately 25 per cent of their own weight per day. They are unusual among fish because they are warm blooded and can maintain a body temperature of up to 10 degrees Celsius above the surrounding water.

But while fishing for cod and herring have been a way of life since the very first visitors to North America arrived, fishing for big bluefin had to be invented. In the 19th century bluefin were considered a nuisance and a predator on the local cod and herring which could be sold to a large North American market. They were usually harpooned from small lobster boats and sold for very little in U.S. markets.

Creation of the sport fishing industry in Wedgeport belongs unquestionably to Michael Lerner, the president of the Lerner Stores Corporation chain of clothing stores. Lerner, a friend of Hemingway’s, could easily have been the model for some of his macho characters. He was a big game hunter and had fished with Hemingway in the Bahamas. In 1935 he came to Nova Scotia but had been fishing without success east of Wedgeport in the Liverpool and Jordan Bay areas.

A call Lerner made to his wife in New York from a hotel telephone in Shelburne, complaining about his poor luck, was overheard by a travelling salesman from Yarmouth. The salesman told him about the giant tuna off Wedgeport. Lerner cancelled his return travel plans and went with his guide Tommy Gifford to Wedgeport where he hired captain Evee LeBlanc to look for tuna.

Lerner caused a sensation in the tiny village not only by catching two large bluefin but in the manner he caught them–using a rod and reel instead of a harpoon.

During a subsequent fishing trip, Lerner and some companions landed 21 bluefin in eight days. The fish were strung up by the tail on makeshift racks where the proud anglers posed for photographs, many of which are on display in the museum.

A 1992 article by the late Israel Pothier, then in his 90s, prepared for a local cable television program, says Lerner called the local fishermen into a meeting. “Lerner said at the meeting that we had tunas that would bring anglers and people from the four corners of the world. I, for one, thought Lerner was somewhat batty or a teller of tall tales. Later I was proven wrong. He said clean your lobster boats, fit in a fishing chair and a toilet. Get fishing tackle.”

The new industry quickly changed the village. Hotels and restaurants opened and there were new opportunities for boat owners and fishing guides. Two old photos in the museum are reminders of that growth. One shows the home Lerner stayed in during his early visits. The other shows the same house after it was transformed into a hotel.

Kip Farrington Jr. and his wife Chrisie were among Lerner’s guests in 1935. Farrington developed the concept of creating a world match for tuna fishing. Teams would represent their countries in a match that lasted for a week.

Soon teams were coming to Wedgeport for the International Tuna Match from the United States, Great Britain, Cuba, the British Caribbean and South America.

Farrington convinced Alton B. Sharp, owner of the Eastern Steamship Lines, to donate the Sharp Cup which now sits encased in glass in the museum.

The first championship was held in 1937. “You didn’t necessarily win if you had the biggest fish. There was a points system. You got points for the size of fish, the number of fish, catching the first fish, etc.,” explains Ghislain Boudreau, Blair Boudreau’s son and the coordinator of the museum.

A typical crew consisted of three or four. In a crew of three you had the captain, a guide who knew where the fish might be and looked after the tackle and gear, and a chummer who stood by a barrel of herring cutting up bait and tossing it overboard.

A fishing chair would be mounted in the stern with a rod and reel attached. The line would be made of piano wire for about 20 feet and then a double steel line. “Each person fishing would be given allotted times. If the fish struck while it was your turn, even if you weren’t at the rod it was still yours,” explains Blair Boudreau.

Louis Boudreau, a captain who still fishes commercially today with his son, says the biggest tuna he caught in competition was 991 pounds, the biggest catch in the 1971 tournament. That one took four hours and 45 minutes to land. “It really depends on the angler,” says the 66-year-old captain. “Some anglers can bring one in in 45 minutes while others can take hours.”

Ernie Pothier, 70, began fishing with his father in 1947 and went at it full-time after a nine-year-stint in the army. “I was the guide. I would get the gear ready and make chowder for everyone. You always take a barrel of herring with you. You leave at six in the morning and come back around four or five in the afternoon.”

Pothier won the Sharp Cup in 1974 while he was captain with the Scandinavian team.

He remembers taking teams out for $25 a day. “Of course you would get tips and 95 per cent of the time they let you keep the fish. Some of them would take the fish as a trophy and still pay you for it.”

The great fishing of the 1930s was soon interrupted by the events unfolding in Europe.

Teams arrived for the 1939 match but before they could start, news arrived that there was a war on. “At a Sunday mass I told the various teams that a Second World War had started,” recalled Israel Pothier in his 1992 article. “The French team said, ‘Nous allons chez nous tout de suite…Goodbye, Bonjour.'”

The match was cancelled during World War II when most of the fishermen went off to serve.

Sport fishing resumed in 1946, and by then the industry was reaching its peak. In 1949, 1,780 tunas were landed during the season. In that same year there were 166 strikes during the match, of which 70 tunas were landed.

In 1958, one lone tuna was caught during the summer by John Jacquard. By 1969, the match had been cancelled. There were reports of tuna being caught off Port Maitland and Cape St. Mary, but not off Wedgeport. The last sport fishing tuna caught in Wedgeport was in 1978, but by then the tournament had moved up the coast to Cape St. Mary. “Now we have to go 20 or 50 miles away. It seems you have to keep going further and further,” says Ernie Pothier. In the glory days, the fish were caught within a mile of shore.

Many people believe the tuna moved on because the cod and herring–the staple of their diet–moved on. Blair Boudreau says no one really knows why the fish left. “There are three theories,” he says. One is that Hurricane Edna (in 1954) destroyed the ground fishery that the tuna live on. There is a theory that the water temperature has changed and become warmer. Tuna like the cooler water. And third is that the causeway that was built at Cape Sable changed the traditional routes of the herring by putting an obstacle in the way that they have to go around.

“There is a fourth theory,” he adds. “Some people say there was a local priest who told the congregation that if they didn’t come to church, the tuna would go away. Sunday is the day all the sportsmen most want to go out. So the fisherman weren’t in church and the tuna went away.”

Today there is only a heavily measured commercial fishery for bluefin tuna. In the year 2000, $15 million worth of bluefin was caught commercially off Canada’s Atlantic coast. The catch has remained relatively stable with the yield in 1995 being $15.2 million. Canada sets its bluefin quota in consultation with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna. In July last year, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Robert Thibault, the MP for West Nova, which includes Wedgeport and Yarmouth, announced the bluefin tuna quota for 2002 would be set at 594.7 tonnes. The quota for 2001 was 553 tonnes.

Eric Jacquard is a modern fisherman in Wedgeport with a 45-foot boat and is part of a four-person crew. He fishes year-round depending on the season, going after lobster from November to May, swordfish in July and August and then tuna until his quota is met.

The bluefin fishing season begins in July or August when the tuna migrate north into Canadian waters. The industry in Canadian waters is divided into sectors. Wedgeport falls in the Southwest Nova Scotia sector which is allotted 125 tonnes. No new licences have been given out in years. “There’s pretty well a gentlemen’s agreement that everyone gets their share of that,” Jacquard says. He fishes in the Bay of Fundy area going north as far as the Minas Bay or on the Atlantic side he sometimes goes to what is known as the Hell Hole in the Georges Bank. The sector will yield 25 to 30 tuna a year.

He says when you have one you report it so the authorities are there when you land. “The good tunas go straight to Japan to be sold as sushi. There’s usually a truck at the dock to pick it up within an hour. Not like in the old days when they could be there for days.”

Blair Boudreau still hopes Fisheries and Oceans Canada will grant some sport fishing licences if only for a tournament. “It would be simple. We would only need a few licences. The tournament would last four or five days.”

Speaking briefly to Legion Magazine at a November event in Yarmouth, Thibault said he hopes to see sport tuna fishing open briefly for a tournament. “Hopefully we would see a limited return if the stocks would allow it. There is an educational value in allowing a sport fish tournament. If we did we would only do it if we could reach an accommodation with the fishermen.”

And so while the heyday of tuna fishing in Wedgeport has come and gone, paying homage to that past has created its own attraction for the outside world.

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