More information is coming out about the 6-foot-long, 245- to 250-pound, probably 8-year-old bluefin tuna that was discovered this past summer on an Orcas Island beach – “about 150 to 200 miles” from where you might expect to see one.
SeaDoc Society posted an hourlong podcast today about the incredibly rare find made on Crescent Beach at the head of East Sound, including how a local man seized the opportunity to fillet himself a 45-pound chunk – “the primo sashimi of the bluefin” – off the carcass and at least three local kayakers saw bizarre fish activity in nearby waters in the days before.
It’s an absolutely fascinating listen and reminds us that while we think we know a lot about the Northwest’s natural world, there’s so much more we don’t. Indeed, the bluefin made its appearance just as a book that definitively listed all the fish known to live in or frequent the sheltered inside waters of Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca was published.
“The first thing I’m thinking, that book is obsolete. The day the book hits the shelf, they’ve missed one of the fishes of the Salish Sea,” book reviewer Jay Gaydos told host Justin Cox, SeaDoc communications manager, in the podcast.
In the week before the tuna was found, several local kayakers spotted something unusual swimming in the waters off of Crescent Beach and Ship Bay.
“It was following the beach line very closely both nights, and it would turn very narrowly and go right along the edge again, turn after about 40 feet and go along it,” Jean Agapoff recalled to Cox. “Obviously, it wasn’t feeding. Any prey would have left the area. It was almost like it was … trapped.”
“And the other thing I can say about it, it seemed to be lunging,” added Hugh Everett. “That is to say, it would rest for a bit and then it would make a big wake for 40 or 50 feet, and then it would rest. It would go in pushes. It was not a smooth-swimming animal.”
Asked by Cox if they thought at the time a bluefin tuna was in East Sound, they both said no.
Cox acknowledges that’s there’s no way to know for sure whether what Agapoff and Everett saw and Northwest Sportsman reader Gary Lundquist and son JD, among others, found on July 11 are one and the same, “but it’s like the same spot, it’s about as close as you’re going to get to it.”
While the Lundquists had a ferry to catch that morning and didn’t bother cutting off any of the meat, another local man did, and it led to social media assumptions about what the impact would be to his digestive system.
“We subsequently learned the guy was just fine, in fact the flesh was just fine,” Adam Summers, a University of Washington professor based at Friday Harbor Labs who dissected the bluefin, told Cox.
Summers also tried some himself after receiving advice from a tuna expert NOT to just discard its flesh. “It was fabulous, fabulous meat. It did not go to waste,” he said.
In the podcast, Summers described boating from Orcas back over to San Juan Island with the wrapped-up carcass and realizing just how fresh the fish really was.
“It started bleeding and it was absolutely fresh arterial-red blood,” Summers said. “It was a typical experience when you just boated a tuna and you see this blood coming out. I knew that we weren’t going to be opening up a four- or five-day-old animal.”
“When I cut into it,” Josh Brown, the man who expertly trimmed off a fillet that July morning on the beach, told Cox over sushi from the fish and beers, “it was still warm. They’re warm-blooded fish.”
Summers said that a bluefin expert told him the tuna looked like an “8-year-old fish” that had been on the eastern side of the Pacific for “quite a while” and would have otherwise headed back towards Japan.
As for why it ended up on Orcas, Summers said that bluefin around the world occasionally end up trapped in straits and die there.
“Bluefin are not wired to understand about tides; they’re not really even wired to understand about shoreline,” Summers told Cox. “At this point in their life, they’re traveling in small schools, four to six or eight animals, and the whole school may have ended up in the Salish Sea.”
Fast swimmers, it could have taken a school just a few hours to find themselves deep inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where tides, freshwater influences and other factors would have likely further disoriented them, he said.
When the fish was found, a few wags asserted the high-value tuna had been left on the beach as a prank or something, but the podcast suggests otherwise.
“Eventually, what we determined from particles – gravel and sand in the gills and in the mouth – eventually just making a bad choice about where to be in East Sound as the tide dropped,” Summers told Cox. “And so it beached itself, basically. The fish was in perfect condition. There were no bruises, there were no issues with the internal organs, but the gills were full of sand and gravel. And the very, very fresh blood convinces us that this animal died just before the tide started dropping.”
That matches the conclusion Washington Coast tuna skipper Mark Coleman reached independently in July. “After a lot of consideration I think it was a lost, cold tuna that died right at the reach of tide,” he told me then.
As I detailed before, there is evidence of bluefin visiting the Pacific Northwest’s outer coast over the millennia in the form of native oral histories and middens, but as Summers pointed out in the podcast, there is none of either for our inside waters.
But if it was his book, he still wouldn’t add it to Fishes of the Salish Sea, such is the extreme rarity.
“It’s not going to be repeated in my lifetime, I don’t think,” Summers added.
Plans call for the bluefin to be flown to the Burke Museum in Seattle, fed to flesh-eating beetles and added to the museum’s collection as the first local-caught fish of the species, he told Cox.
Editor’s note: For more on the bluefin tuna, see this story from the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs.