Tournament Time in Tuna Town: PEI Tuna Cup Challenge

Mar 15, 2021 | 12 minute read
Reading Time: 12 minutes

North Lake is a small fishing community on the northeastern tip of Canada’s Prince Edward Island. Made up of a harbor, a few houses, and a couple of hundred people, it seems an unlikely place for a global sporting event. However, every September, people flock here from as far away as Australia and Hawaii. Why? Three words: Giant Bluefin Tuna.

A close-up of a giant Bluefin Tuna caught and released off PEI, Canada, at the Tuna Cup Challenge fishing tournament

Image courtesy of the Tuna Cup Challenge

This is the home of the Canada International Tuna Cup Challenge, one of the most unique and exciting fishing competitions on the planet. Over the three days of the tournament, teams take on fish weighing 1,000 pounds or more. There are no big prizes. Not a single fish is brought back to the dock. It’s a pure celebration of the ocean’s ultimate predator.

How did North Lake become Bluefin central? We decided to find out, so got in touch with the people behind the Tuna Cup Challenge. We also spoke to past competitors and local businesspeople to get an idea of what the tournament, and these fish, mean to the area. Safe to say, we were both surprised and impressed by what we heard.

Prince Edward Island: A Bucket List Destination

Prince Edward Island is widely regarded to have the world’s best Bluefin Tuna bite. To find out what makes it so good, we spoke to Jason Tompkins, co-chair of the Tuna Cup Challenge and a commercial exporter of the area’s Tuna. Jason has worked with local fishermen and charter captains for almost 20 years, and he stakes his livelihood on the strength of the fishery. He gave us some very compelling reasons to fish here.

The Greenest Pastures

An aerial view of Prince Edward Island, Canada

The local joke is that the Tuna are like the people – they head south for the winter and come home when the weather picks up. It’s not homesickness that brings the Bluefin back each summer, though. The cold Atlantic waters around PEI hold huge stocks of Mackerel and other oily fish. This draws Bluefin all the way from their winter retreats in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico and works them into a feeding frenzy by the time they arrive.

“Besides being an apex predator, Tuna are the cows of the ocean,” explains Jason. “They go to the greenest pastures, and we just happen to have them. So, lucky us, I guess.”

Jason may play it down, but it’s not just a question of luck. There are strict regulations in place to keep these waters clean, healthy, and full of fish. PEI has the greenest pastures, and the locals want to keep it that way.

The Best of All Worlds

Quantity is only part of the puzzle. There are several other things that set PEI apart. Firstly, how close to the coast the Tuna show up. As Jason puts it, When you look at other areas – Scandinavian or Mediterranean countries that are fishing for the exact same fish – the fishermen have to travel.”

For most of us, travel times are the price you pay for a shot at a 1,000 lb Tuna. That’s why they call it deep sea fishing, right? Not here.

“These guys are fishing a kilometer, two kilometers from the port… They’re fishing in the strait, so it’s relatively sheltered… Our season, of course, is summer, so we’ve got some beautiful weather. A lot of these guys, they’re in flip flops, shorts, and a T-shirt… Beautiful skies, blue sea, and the fish literally on their doorstep. It’s the best of all worlds.” It sure does sound like it.

Record-Breaking Waters

Two fishermen next to a Giant Bluefin Tuna that they are about to release

Huge fish actively feeding just a stone’s throw from town? That sounds like the making of some real record-breakers. And it is. The IGFA world record for Bluefin Tuna was set in these exact waters, when a 1,500 lb giant was hauled aboard in 1979. It’s not surprising that PEI has been a sportfishing destination for decades.

“If you go back as far as the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, that’s why guys traveled here. That’s why Hemingway was here. It’s why a lot of professional athletes came,” says Jason. “Even today, if you look at the tournament, you’re looking at teams from South Africa, Australia, Hawaii. People from all over come here because it’s ideal!”

The Tuna Cup Challenge: A Unique Event

These waters are legendary, there’s no other way to put it. But what makes the tournament special? When we spoke to the tournament’s event manager, Kent Hudson, he was quite clear on what draws people to the Tuna Cup Challenge.

All About the Fish

“The absolute star of the show is the Tuna. We don’t highlight this event as a big cash prize. It’s all catch and release. There’s no big purse at the end. So, the fact that we have guys and gals coming from all over the world to fish in it is awesome. It’s unique, and it truly is the fishery that brings them in.”

A smiling woman with a blue headband and sunglasses posing next to a giant Bluefin Tuna in the water

The event is all about these majestic creatures and the thrill of catching them. For Kent, the best part is seeing the anglers’ faces when they get back to the dock.

“They come in after hooking and releasing one and they’re just vibrating. We get people saying ‘this is the greatest.’ ‘There’s only one thing in my life which was better and that was the birth of my child.’ The power of that experience for them is really the story that we like to tell.”

Kent says that this is the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip for many competitors. We would have to agree – PEI ranks on our own fishing bucket list. He also says that the experience can be almost addictive for some anglers: It’s interesting how many people come thinking this is their bucket list item that they’ll do once, and yet they come back several times. It really goes to show how good the fishing here is.

World-Class Angling

The best way to understand something is to talk to someone who has actually lived it. With that in mind, we spoke to one of the defending champions of the Tuna Cup Challenge, Martin Nadeau.

Living near Montreal, just a few hundred miles from PEI, Martin had always dreamed of taking on the island’s monster Bluefin. When a friend said that one of his team had dropped out, Martin jumped at the chance and agreed to take part.

According to Martin, each day’s fishing starts out pretty relaxed. The team catches bait and sets their lines. They have a coffee or a beer and a bite to eat, and they wait for the action to start.

An angler hooking live mackerel onto a fishing line to catch Bluefin Tuna

Fresh Mackerel is like candy for hungry Bluefin Tuna

“You chill, you talk, and suddenly, WOOOOOO – the reel starts screaming. Now the adrenaline is at the top, everybody’s excited, but everybody knows what to do.”

Catching giant Bluefin Tuna is a group effort, as Martin learned quickly. The second the clicker sounds, it’s a race against time to clear the deck and remove the other lines from the water. Then the battle begins.

“A human cannot reel these fish by themselves for an hour and a half. It’s crazy. So I do five minutes, my friend does five minutes. We keep changing until the fish is next to the boat.”

And then, finally, you catch a glance of the fish you’ve worked so hard to see. For Martin, there are no words to explain what that moment feels like.

“It’s a really strange feeling. It’s such a beautiful fish. When it comes close with its huge eyes and big mouth it’s really impressive. Having an 800 pound fish right next to you, you cannot imagine it if you don’t see it.”

Small Town, Warm Welcome

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the Tuna are the star of the show, but it’s not just the fishing that makes Martin want to go back.

“A lot of people have told me, ‘Martin, you have to come back because you’re the defending champion. We want to beat you this year!’ But that’s not the only reason I’m going. We really loved the people and the community there. They’re all very nice people.”

Martin expected incredible angling, but he was blown away by how open and friendly everybody was.

“The town itself is very small. It’s at the end of the island, far from everywhere… And because it’s such a small community, everyone’s so warm and welcoming.”

Despite the international lineup, this is truly a local event. The captains are all from North Lake or nearby Souris and the award ceremony is held in the community hall. And because it’s all local boats, winning can mean as much to the crews as it does to the teams.

Martin fished both years with Capt. Ernie and Steve Macphee, of Ernie’s Charters. They were overjoyed to have helped their team win last year.

“When we won, Ernie and his brother invited their mother and father and all the family because they were so happy. At the end, when we took the picture, we said, ‘bring your father here’ and his father got in the picture too. They were really happy to be part of our victory.”

Seven people posing with a trophy after winning the PEI Tuna Cup Challenge

The winning team, their crew, and the crew’s father. Image courtesy of Martin Nadeau.

It’s rare to see an event that draws people from the other side of the planet and still manages to keep that small-town feel intact. Martin makes it clear that the fishing in PEI is unbeatable, but it’s the friendships and the fun that really make the Tuna Cup Challenge special – not to mention the delicious lobster, mussels, and oysters that he enjoyed the whole time he was there!

Bluefin Tuna: A Community’s Passion

It’s impossible to discuss the Tuna Cup Challenge without talking about the fishery and the community as a whole. North Lake is a town with Bluefin in its blood, and every charter captain is also a commercial fisher. The local fishing industry has changed a lot over the years, and captains have adapted to feed their families without threatening these incredible fish.

Lower Quotas, Healthy Fish Stocks

“If you go back 30 years, the Tuna fishery was much bigger” explains Jason. “We had a quota, but even in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the government would open the season and the boats would fish until it was caught. So, if you were really good at what you did, you might catch 10 or 20 in a year.”

“However, things have changed. We’ve seen what’s happened to Tuna stocks in other parts of the world, so we reduced our quota back in the late ‘90s, and again the early 2000s. That’s when we went from open season to ‘Wait a minute, we need to take better care of this.’”

They weren’t messing around. The Bluefin Tuna quota was reduced by around 75% over the course of a decade. These days, each boat can only keep one Tuna per year. But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped catching them. Instead of a commercial kill fishery, PEI now has a catch-and-release sport fishery, and fish stocks are steadily rebuilding as a result.

If You Love Them, Set Them Free

A Bluefin Tuna about to be released at the Canada International Tuna Cup Challenge fishing tournament

Image courtesy of the Tuna Cup Challenge

A key concern for marine conservationists is how effective catch and release really is. Sure, you can let a fish swim off, but that doesn’t guarantee it will survive. In PEI, it pretty much does. All captains have to take extensive training on how to handle and release fish safely in order to get their charter license. The result? Over 96% of released fish survive, according to research from Acadia University.

There are a million tiny things that affect a fish’s chances of surviving, from how you fight it and what equipment you use to how you remove the hook and make sure it’s fully revived. PEI charter captains have to master all these things before they can start running trips. As Jason puts it: “We don’t want to be doing a catch and release fishery and then for the Tuna to not survive.” Makes sense.

This isn’t something that captains learn in a week, as Jason explains. “They only have one fish to catch each year. Even if they’re out commercial fishing, they’ve got to handle it so gently because that’s the one fish they’re bringing home… They’re really babying the Tuna as much as possible to ensure it doesn’t overheat or overstress. So when they move into the charter industry, they’re experts.”

Passionate About Tuna

These days, Tuna aren’t a big thing financially for most people. One fish can earn a nice payday, but it’s the Lobster harvest that puts bread on the table. Profit doesn’t always equal passion though. Jason says that “even though Tuna fishing is a side gig, it’s still the number one fishery when it comes to what’s in the heart of fishermen. There’s a huge passion that these fishermen hold.”

Two happy fishermen holding a Bluefin Tuna in the water next to them before they release it

It makes sense for fishermen and women to care about the future of their stocks. Apparently, meetings on Tuna management are always packed with every captain in the area, and that’s understandable. But it’s not just old sea dogs and commercial crews that care about the Tuna – pretty much everyone in the area comes from a fishing family, and these fish mean a lot to them.

“When someone gets a fish, they call it in. The government goes down to check the weight and all those things. But the first person they call is their family. And when they pull into the harbor, the mother and the grandmother and the aunts and uncles – everyone’s there waiting to cheer them on,” says Jason. “It’s interesting to see how it has still held the hearts of not only the fishermen but the community over the years.”

PEI Tuna Fishing: A Bright Future

People in North Lake have really tightened their belts to protect their Tuna. They’ve worked with bodies like the Department for Fisheries and Oceans and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas to cut their quotas and improve their techniques. And from what we hear, it’s beginning to pay off.

More Anglers

An anglers fighting a huge fish with a fighting chair and heavy tackle, with a crew member helping them behind

Image courtesy of the Tuna Cup Challenge

“The Tuna is starting to get a little bit more noticeable,” says Kent, when we ask him how things are changing. “All season long, people are coming in from all around the world. If they can’t come to our event, they can still come any time during the summer. They can go to any of our Tuna charters and go out for the excitement of catching these fish.”

And more anglers means more business for local captains. Kent says that the charter fleet has grown tenfold over the last decade, with around 30 or 35 boats now running trips on PEI. Kent hopes that the Tuna Cup Challenge can help both the charter scene and the community by drawing attention to the island.

More Tuna

The tournament, and the charter fishery as a whole, are currently 100% catch and release. And because the charter captains are properly trained, over 96% of all fish survive after they’re caught. This, combined with a reduced commercial quota all along the Eastern Seaboard, has allowed Tuna stocks to slowly recover.

“This is the healthiest we’ve seen the fishery in probably about 20 years says Jason. “There were days last year when boats could see Tuna jumping and playing for as far as they could see in every direction.”

A view from a boat on the sea of Bluefin Tuna playing and feeding on the surface of the water

It’s not just talk. According to a 2017 report from the ICCAT, Tuna stocks around PEI have increased by as much as 60% over the last decade.

What does this all mean? Simply put, if you’re concerned about the state of Bluefin Tuna stocks, you can take a charter on PEI and know that every fish is released, and every fish is likely to survive once it swims away. To quote Jason, it’s “come, have your experience of a lifetime, and then let it go to fight another day.”

The Next World Record?

The world record for Bluefin Tuna currently stands at just under 1,500 pounds. It has done so for almost half a century. Is this one of those records that’s destined to never be broken? It seems that way, but when we asked Kent, he wasn’t so sure.

“You just never know. It’s been a while since we’ve had one at a similar size but it only takes the one to beat the record, so you never know. The fishery is strong. They might be hard to find out there, but they’ve generally been in that 800–1000-pound range. There’s enough of them out there that that big fella may show up in the next year or two. Let’s hope.”

A Fishery to Be Proud Of

Prince Edward Island has always been on our sportfishing bucket list. The area is famous for its monster Bluefin, and it really seems to live up to the hype. More than that, it seems to have adapted to the state of today’s oceans. To have built an industry based on the experience, not the harvest.

To quote Martin, the defending champion: “You work like crazy for an hour and a half. You have the adrenaline at the top. Your arms are sore because you’ve reeled so much. And at the end, it’s like a huge reward for all your work. I feel great when we release them!”

We would like to thank Kent, Jason, Martin, and everybody else we got in touch with. We wish you all the best of luck in this year’s Tuna Cup Challenge and many years of hard fights and happy releases. Tight lines!

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