As fish drift south, New England boats bump Dixie docks

Bewhiskered and bewildered, J.C. Burke sips a hot drink as the sun wanes orange over Beaufort, thinking about all the ways he didn't catch a fish today.

Even more unusual than the meager haul, however, may be Mr. Burke's presence in these warm waters at all. He is one of more than 100 New England skippers who have followed the migration of bluefin tuna from the coastal waters of Maine and Massachusetts to the sand spits off North Carolina.

For the second year in a row, New England fishermen failed to catch the 1,400 metric ton tuna quota in their local waters, leaving 107 tons to harvest as the tuna mass near the North Carolina shore. So the bearded and booted skippers are steaming in force to Cape Lookout here to take part in a unique and emerging "Christmas fishery."

The apparent shift in tuna migration patterns is melding two disparate fishing fleets - one fledgling and Southern, the other experienced and Northern - in one sleepy Dixie port. So far, comity, even camaraderie, has prevailed between the camps from North and South. But against a backdrop of tense tuna politics, unexplained science, and shifting fortunes on the water, events can have a way of coming between even the finest of mates.

And how the two camps get along could be instructive for future relations on the nation's briny seas. As fishing stocks get depleted in one area, more skippers are taking their nets and reels to other waters - from Alaska to Maine to North Carolina. The nomadic trend is improving the fortunes of many fishermen. But it can also produce a clash of cultures and raises new questions about what the congregating boats mean for fishing stocks.

In fact, environmentalists are already warning that the North Carolina fishery may be a disaster in the making: They think the rumbling boats at the Beaufort docks veil a filament-thin truce that could fray over time. "When there's enough fish to go around, there's no bad blood," says Dan Whittle, a senior scientist at North Carolina Environmental Defense in Raleigh. "But scarcity breeds animosity, and when fishermen are faced with difficulty, that's when tempers flare."

Plenty of examples of tension already exist. Though few have heard of it, the decades-long "spiny lobster wars" between the Cubans and Bahamians is real enough. Alaskan salmon fishermen are known to shoot rock salt across each other's bows. And, last year, blue crab fishermen stole each other's pots in the swamps around Savannah, Ga.

In most cases, it's a depleted fishery that's to blame, a more and more common occurrence as fishery managers keep reducing quotas. Caught in the middle are these modern-day Santiagos, a salty amalgam of third-generation skippers and nomadic newcomers - people like Billy O'Connor. He was "Forcibly retired" from a Boston high-tech firm. Though he hasn't caught anything here yet, he's not overly concerned. "I just read 'Old Man and the Sea' for the first time," he says. He [Santiago] went for 85 days before catching one, so we've got a while to go yet."

Respect for the old salts

Despite a rough reputation that precedes them, the New England crews are easing the minds of locals as they sip chai at Beaufort coffee houses and chow on soft-shell crabs in the restaurants.

Some say the presence of the boats is bringing as much as a $1 million into this town, a gentrified fish camp where few of the fishermen can afford to live near the white clapboard waterfront.

After a lifetime on the water, native New Englander Walter Matheson has settled in behind the counter at a Beaufort marina, where he supports fishing "troops" with pep talks. Unlike most winters, this year the cramped office adorned with wacky pictures (a horse nibbling at a kayak) is crawling with fishermen. "This time of year, we used to put a fuzzy Santa Claus in the window with a sign that said, 'See you next year,' " says Mr. Matheson, the wit of the marina. "Now the phone's ringing [it does, on command] and a lot of activity is being generated."

On the water, the two fleets call each other's handles on the CB as they chase tuna. After a long day, they rub elbows in smoky harbor taverns, as the New Englanders pick up local fishing tips and the Southern boatmen learn the complicated business of the international tuna trade.

At Homer Smith's fish house, Bostonian Jason Bahr, a buyer, takes time to show the Southern fishermen tricks for measuring a tuna's girth and how to tell a well-marbled fish from an exhausted one - all key to fetching high prices.

And as a reminder to the true danger of their calling, a tragedy also bonded the fleets: On the first day out, a New Jersey man, fishing alone, hooked a big tuna. But a harpoon line got wrapped around his ankle. He was pulled overboard and drowned. Local fishermen took up a collection for the New Jersey man.

"Right now, I'm just glad they're here. I talk to 'em on the water, and they're all good guys," says Mike Butler, a black-bearded North Carolinian who spent an hour and a half landing a 250 pound tuna. "They're the professionals. We're learning tricks from them."

Clearly, one reason for the calm is the respect many Dixie skippers harbor toward their Northern counterparts. While the North Carolina fishermen were busy towing shrimp seines through muddy coastal waters, New England fishermen took a lead role in developing the nation's tuna fishery, now regulated by a bicameral international commission. "If it weren't for the Northern tuna fishermen, we wouldn't have anything to argue about," says Jerry Schill, director of the North Carolina Fishery Association.

Strange tuna migration

Part of the reason for the uniting of the fleets, however, is the still-mysterious shifting migration patterns of the tuna. Scientists have yet to figure out how the fish operate: Are there two stocks - one off the northern Atlantic, the other part of a Mediterranean population? Or is it all just one huge swirling family?

New England fishermen have their own theories. They blame factory trawlers for taking too much herring out of the Gulf of Maine, forcing the tuna to search for more plentiful waters for food. The thick shoals of menhaden and shad that flock around Cape Lookout may be doing the trick. The National Marine Fisheries Service is commissioning new research into the phenomenon. "When the bluefin are in the Northeast on their migratory route, they seem to be further offshore, and when they come further South, they become bigger fish," says Susan Buchanan of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Silver Spring, Md. "So far, we're not sure exactly what's happening."

For their part, environmentalists aren't convinced the Christmas fishery is good - and see the chase off North Carolina as damaging to a vulnerable tuna population. "Boats are coming from all over the East Coast, targeting a species at its lowest spawning stock biomass in some time, and killing them at record rates," says Mr. Whittle. "That doesn't recover a population of fish."

On this day many fishermen, in fact, aren't seeing their rods bend. "We haven't made our fuel back yet," says Patrick Woods, a novice fisherman from Cape Cod. "We'll stay until we do."

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