BELFAST, Maine — Atlantic bluefin tuna is one of the most prized fish in the world, and on the open market, a 600-pound fish might sell for as much as $10,000.
But in Belfast, patrons of the Belfast Soup Kitchen will dine next week on locally caught bluefin tuna steaks for free after Maine fishermen donated an accidentally caught fish to the nonprofit organization.
That’s thanks to a turn of events that still boggles the mind of Jamie Steeves of Rockland’s J&J Lobster. The crew of his commercial fishing boat were off Belfast last Friday morning, using a seine net to fish for pogies, a fish used as bait for the lobster industry. Suddenly, though, the smaller fish disappeared and the net started dancing.
They had caught a 600-pound bluefin tuna in the net, completely by mistake.
“What happened shouldn’t have happened. What we did was definitely an accident,” Steeves said Thursday.
The fish was undeniably impressive, he said.
“It’s beyond wildest dreams. It’s probably the biggest one landed in the state this year,” he said. “What we saw, a person could fish five lifetimes and it wouldn’t happen.”
But the bluefin tuna, which died before it could be released from the net, also posed a problem for the fisherman and his crew. In order to prevent overfishing, there are strict regulations that govern how Atlantic bluefin tuna can be harvested. Commercial and recreational fishermen must have a permit to fish for it. Rules that govern bycatch mean that almost everything that was unintentionally scooped up in a net must be thrown overboard.
While the fish was still in the net, Steeves reached out to Maine Marine Patrol officers to tell them about his dilemma and ask for guidance.
“Obviously our biggest concern is that bycatch isn’t exploited for personal gain. There isn’t a great mechanism in place to handle those situations,” Capt. Matt Talbot of the Maine Marine Patrol said. “It certainly would be a waste to throw that over the side.”
Because it was obvious from the outset that the fishermen had caught the fish by accident — meaning that it didn’t have to be seized as evidence — they immediately got the green light to find it a new home at a soup kitchen or somewhere similar, Talbot said.
For help, Steeves reached out to Doug Shartzer of Somerville, a friend who has experience recreationally fishing for tuna and was willing to make some phone calls. Shartzer said that the tuna had likely followed the schools of pogies, also called menhaden, which come closer to shore in the fall in search of warmer water.
“There’s a lot of sea life up there right now,” he said. “We still think there are tuna there.”
Shartzer called five area soup kitchens and other charitable organizations to ask if they would be interested in the fish. Other people called other places, asking the same question. But all were closed on Fridays. Finally, the Belfast Soup Kitchen answered the phone.
“He cold-called, asking ‘Can you use a 600-pound tuna?’” Cherie Merrill, the executive director of the Belfast Soup Kitchen, said. “I never say no to anything, but all I could picture was dropping this 600-pound fish off at the door.”
Fortunately, that’s not what happened.
Shartzer had broken down the fish at the dock in Rockland. Marine patrol officers brought it up to Belfast in coolers, where Merrill, bemused but delighted, was trying to figure out what to do with it next. She knew the fish would be a hit at the soup kitchen, a busy place that has served more than 300 guests a day this month. All the people who have heard about it, guests and volunteers and others in the community, think the gift was amazing, she said.
“It was just a highly unusual donation,” she said. “Everybody was thrilled.”
Still, butchering bluefin tuna is not something she has experience doing. Shartzer offered to come up the following day to help.
“He brought the knives he needed and everything,” Merrill said. “He absolutely knew what he was doing.”
Shartzer and four volunteers spent four or five hours filleting tuna steaks and vacuum sealing usable portions to place in the freezer. They also saved scrap pieces with the intention of making canned tuna fish with it.
“It came out beautiful,” Merrill said.
Shartzer also was able to get 50 pounds of top-quality toro tuna from the fatty part of the fish. This is the most prized part and expensive part of a tuna, and used for sushi.
After the butchering was done, the volunteers did sample some of the fish for lunch.
“The toro just melted in your mouth. It was fantastic,” Shartzer said.
Merrill said the Belfast Soup Kitchen may save the toro to use during a fundraiser dinner, with money raised being used towards the purchase of a walk-in cooler.
Next week, though, the guests at the soup kitchen will enjoy marinated tuna steaks with local bok choy and rice.
“Talk about local,” Merrill said. “We distributed 10,000 pounds of local produce last month. To add fish caught in the ocean to that is very exciting.”