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Massachusetts fishermen snare 881-pound tuna, feds take it

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This Nov. 12 photo released by the NOAA and provided by Stephanie Rafael shows fishing boat owner Carlos Rafael in New Bedford, Mass., with an 881-pound tuna. Federal fishery enforcement agents seized the fish when the crew returned to port. Rafael had tuna permits, but was told catching tuna with a net is illegal.

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. » It’s the big one that got taken away.

Local fishing boat owner Carlos Rafael was elated when one of his trawlers snared an 881-pound bluefin tuna earlier this month.

But the joy was short-lived. Federal fishery enforcement agents seized the fish when the crew returned to port Nov. 12.

Rafael had tuna permits but was told catching tuna with a net is illegal.

Instead, it’s got to be caught by handgear, such as rod and reel, harpoon or handline.

"We didn’t try to hide anything," Rafael told The Standard-Times newspaper of New Bedford, a famous whaling era port 50 miles south of Boston. "We did everything by the book. Nobody ever told me we couldn’t catch it with a net."

A fish that big is hugely valuable, prized by sushi-lovers for its tender red meat. A 754-pound tuna recently sold for nearly $396,000.

Rafael’s fish will be sold overseas, and he’ll get no share of the proceeds if regulators find a violation, The Standard-Times reported (http://bit.ly/uczYap ). The money would instead go into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fund that also holds money collected for fishery fines.

Rafael said he thinks he’s going to surrender his tuna permits now.

"What good are they if I can’t catch them?" he said.

The tuna was likely inadvertently snagged as Rafael’s crew set a net to catch bottom-dwellers, he said.

"They probably got it in the mid-water when they were setting out and it just got corralled in the net," Rafael said. "That only happens once in a blue moon."

On Tuesday, the NOAA issued a reminder that bluefin tuna can’t be caught legally in trawl nets, even by accident.

The NOAA says the bluefin tuna now reproducing off the coast are below 30 percent of their population level in the 1970s and the fish takes a long time to rebound because it’s slow to grow and reproduce.

The rules aim to take away any incentive to chase and keep the highly coveted fish, beyond what’s allowed.

"It is important to carefully follow the regulations so U.S. fishermen can retain their share, and the associated jobs and profits, of this international resource," the NOAA said.

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