As Oregon’s recreational albacore fishery has hit new highs this summer, the size of the tuna also appears to be the lowest it’s been over the last decade and a half.
Preliminary stats from state ocean samplers show that the 96,919 brought back to ports up and down the coast through Sept. 8 have averaged just 25.67 inches, more than 3 inches shorter than the average since 2004, 28.9 inches.
So what does that mean?
“I suspect that we have a strong younger age class that is available to the fishery,” says ODFW’s Eric Schindler in Newport. “The 2019 length frequency that I just saw from the commercial fishery has an almost identical footprint to what we are seeing in the recreational fishery.”
Typically, sport anglers don’t go as far out as the commercial boats, but that both fleets are catching similarly sized fish likely indicates a pretty big biomass of them out there. In freshwater, kokanee sizes can be smaller in large year-classes, and bigger in smaller ones.
ODFW stats show a pretty uniform average range of albacore sizes from the Astoria Canyon to the California state line, with Winchester Bay and Newport on the low end (25.23 and 25.31 inches) and Pacific City and Brookings at the high (26.3 and 26.22 inches).
A total of 1,276 have been measured so far this year.
The year 2005 saw the highest average length for albies across the coast, 30.55 inches. Last year’s fish were also on the smaller side overall, averaging 26.5 inches.
Still, 2019 is more than making up for slightly smaller tuna with a catch that is now more than 53 percent higher — and still climbing — than the next closest year, 2012’s 63,167.
“Catch per unit of effort (albacore per tuna angler trip) this year is also the highest observed at 6.6 albacore per angler,” Schindler adds. “For comparison, in 2012 it was 3.9 and 2007 it was 4.4 per trip.”
The year 2007 is when albie fishing exploded off Oregon, with nearly 60,000 landed, roughly as many as were caught in the previous six seasons combined.
A table from Schindler shows that Charleston-based fishermen are reeling in the most tuna, followed by the Winchester Bay and Garibaldi fleets.
That last port was where late August’s Oregon Tuna Classic was held, and according to organizer Del Stephens, it marked quite a turnaround from late July’s out of Ilwaco — “a totally different scene.”
“We went from the fish barely arriving and in scarce numbers to lots of tuna and in some cases within 25 miles of shore for most of August,” he stated in a press release reporting on OTC results. “What a switch, but that’s albacore fishing in the Northwest.”
Interestingly, this year’s new high mark follows two relatively down seasons, with catches from roughly 17,500 to 25,000.
It also comes as NOAA recently warned of a large pool of overly warm surface water off the Northwest Coast. Anglers have been hooking more southerly species this summer, including bluefin, striped marlin, dorado and yellowtail.
Even as that is not good news for our salmon and coolwater ecosystems, if the ocean cooperates for tuna anglers, it could mean larger fish next year.
“Right now, I am hoping that it is a strong incoming year class, because those younger fish should be available next season, but with broader shoulders by then,” Schindler says.