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Bluefin Tuna Wash Up On Imperial Beach

Local photojournalist Robert Benson was house hunting last Friday when he got the call from a fisherman friend.



Tuna were washing onto shore in Imperial Beach after

the recent storm.

Photo by Dave Good



“He was kind of out of breath," says Benson. "The first thing he said was, 'Benson – this is an emergency. What are you doing right now?' He told me hundred-pound tunas were washing up on the shore in Imperial Beach.”

Benson says they drove to Border Field State Park and started walking south. He says it was raining, the surf was pounding, and that there were seabirds hovering over the breakers.

“We walked toward those birds, and immediately spotted a fish," he says. "I saw a big dorsal fin. It was a tuna thrashing around in waist-deep water. The waves from the storm were kicking in, and the tuna would get pushed a little closer to the shore each time. It was thrashing pretty good.”

He says they walked into the surf and caught the fish – a blue fin tuna weighing an estimated 50 pounds – by hand. Later, they found another blue fin by the water line.

“The fish was alive when we pulled it out of the water," says Benson. "It was thrashing and hard to hold on to.”

Prized among sport fishermen, blue fin tuna are considered a delicacy. A high-ticket sushi bar item, toro (fatty tuna belly) meat is sometimes called the "foie gras of the sea." Bluefin live in the open ocean and are never encountered in shallow water, much less in the surf. A single adult bluefin can weigh hundreds of pounds or more. According to the Department of Fish and Game, a 35-pound bluefin can net $3,000 - $5,000 thousand at market.

The likely source of the beached bluefin?

Aquaculture pens near south Coronado Island where bluefin are fattened for Japanese markets. There are seven such pens near the Coronados, approximately five miles from Imperial Beach, says a former aqua farm worker who asked to remain anonymous.

“They are in that round pen for so long that all they know how to do is make left-hand turns,” he says of the captive bluefin school’s constant circling.” He thinks that one or more of the PVC-and-net pens broke open during the recent storm, freeing hundreds and perhaps thousands of bluefin.

“The big surf drove them in to shore,” he says.

The majority of bluefin pens are located in the coastal waters off Salsipuedes, just above Ensenada, and further south near La Bufadora. They are essentially underwater feed lots. Wild bluefin are harvested in the open ocean and then transported to the pens where they are fattened for market on a diet of sardines. Baja’s tuna farms are reported to generate 10 percent of Japan’s $350 million dollar per year blu fin market.

A spokesperson at Baja Aqua farms, a San Diego firm that handles sales for some of the Baja fish farms, confirms that tuna had gotten loose during the storm but would not confirm details on the numbers or the market value of the lost bluefin.

Benson says there were other fishermen on the beach that day hand catching the bluefin as they washed up in the surf.

“A commercial fisherman went out that night along Imperial Beach” says Benson, “and pulled 22 more of these fish out of the water.”

As of yesterday, there were still reports of big tuna being found along Imperial Beach.

By the way, the Department of Fish and Game says taking live fish from the ocean without a fishing license is illegal and can result in a $120 to $500 fine.