The American Bluefin Tuna Association represents the four major categories of fishermen who harvest Atlantic bluefin, bigeye, albacore and yellowfin tuna using conventional hook and line, harpoon, handline and greenstick gear. The common thread between all these groups is the desire to conserve the resource and preserve U.S. bluefin and tropical tunas fishing.


Harpoon is a gear type exclusively for use in targeting Atlantic bluefin tuna.  Commercial fishing vessels that exclusively use harpoon for harvesting Atlantic bluefin tuna are issued an open access Harpoon Category permit. The Harpoon fishery is an artisanal fishery. Approximately 30 open access artisanal Harpoon Category permits have been issued annually in recent years. The harpoon technique is a vestige of the old New England whaling tradition. These vessels selectively harvest Large Medium (73- 81 inches) and Giant (81 inches +) Atlantic bluefin tuna with traditional harpoon gear only. The annual fishing quota and minimum fish size limitations are set annually by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In recent years, Harpoon vessels have been allowed to harvest two Atlantic bluefin tuna between 73 and 81 inches in length and an unrestricted number of bluefin over 81 inches in length per day. This unrestricted daily retention limit for giant bluefin tuna has been established exclusively for the Harpoon category for two reasons:

1.  Weather is a critical component in harpooning as this fishing method requires very
calm sea conditions. This requirement dramatically reduces the number of weather-working days during the season that will be suitable for harpooning.

2. Bluefin tuna tend to swim at or near the surface where they are accessible for harpooning only during short intervals in any given day, and only during the first few months of the fishing season. This dramatically reduces fishing opportunities for harpooners. Ultimately, the number of fish that can be retained by these relatively small vessels is limited by the amount of space available for fish storage. Artisanal harpooning requires a very highly skilled and experienced crew and the vessel must be modified for this type of fishing with a long “bow pulpit” and a “crow’s nest”containing helm controls.

Given the need for a relatively calm seastate, harpooning typically can only be conducted during certain times of day and only on those days in which wind is no more than "moderate". Therefore, in practice, these limitations effectively reduce the length of the harpoon fishing season. "Harpoon season”, the time during the season in which the seastate is conducive to this type of fishing is usually during June and July and sometimes extends into August. Therefore, it is a short season.

Due to the fact that harpooners are “sight fishing”, they are always able to determine the species of fish they are targeting. Therefore, bycatch of other species is unknown. Harpooning is therefore considered to be among the most “sustainable” of fishing methods.

Harpoon fishermen are obligated to sell their catch only to federally licensed fish dealers who are required to individually tag and report landings to NOAA within 24 hours. Harpooning is primarily done in the Gulf of Maine as well as inshore areas east of Cape Cod. Vessels in this category are typically 32-38 ft in length.


Photo: Mark Brochu