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Tracking giant West Coast tuna

Media release
23 September 2008

Tracking giant West Coast tuna

New research is using the latest electronic fish tags, capable of reporting via satellite, to understand the migration patterns of Pacific bluefin tuna.

Researchers at The University of Auckland’s South Pacific Centre for Marine Science at Leigh Marine Laboratory are using pop-up satellite archival tags (PSAT) to collect information about the movements, diving patterns and temperature preferences of Pacific bluefin tuna. The tag collects and stores data for eight to 12 months and then automatically releases from the fish and floats to the surface, where it can transmit summary information via satellite to the researchers.

There are three species of bluefin tuna worldwide, two in the Pacific Ocean and one in the Atlantic. The two species found in New Zealand are referred to as Southern bluefin and Pacific bluefin. In recent years a world-class recreational fishery has been established for the larger (up to 350kg) Pacific bluefin off the West Coast of the South Island.

All bluefin tuna species are considered highly migratory, moving through numerous international waters throughout the year. It is thought that Pacific bluefin probably migrate to New Zealand to feed before departing for the tropics to breed.

“Bluefin tuna are being caught on rod and reel while feeding behind hoki trawlers during August and September,” says Professor John Montgomery, Director of LML/SPCMS. “This project, in collaboration with Stanford University and Blue Water Marine Research in Northland, aims to gather data which are essential for coordinated international fisheries management programmes. Unless we understand how these fish live, and where they move, it’s close to impossible to effectively manage these highly migratory species”

“Satellite tag data collected by our collaborators in 2006 and 2007 provided insights about Pacific bluefin movements for up to 6 months,” says PhD student Tim Sippel. “By using satellite tagging technologies over longer periods, we are hoping to learn more about the extent of bluefin residency in New Zealand and where they go to breed.”

The satellite tags are roughly the size and shape of a hand held microphone can sometimes be found washed up on beaches, or on tuna caught by fishing boats. Each tag collects data every 10 seconds for up to a year. Contact information is printed on the tag, and anyone finding tags should return them to ensure the data is collected, for a cash reward.


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