Capt. Anderson started a fishing club in high school, and my friends and I were charter members. There is a photo in my office of eight classmates and me holding codfish after a spring headboat trip with the club.
An inductee into the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, Capt. Anderson was not only a talented fisherman, but also a writer, conservationist and prolific fish tagger, a practice he started as a graduate student at Adelphi University, where he got a master’s degree in (fish) parasitology. In all, he tagged more than 60,000 fish, including more Atlantic bluefin tuna and striped bass than anyone.
An independent thinker and innovator in inshore and bluewater tactics, Capt. Anderson died earlier this year at age 79. –Bill Sisson
The bluefin is the heavyweight wanderer of the tuna clan. A fully mature Atlantic bluefin, if allowed to attain its age potential of 30-plus years, can reach colossal proportions. The largest rod-and-reel bluefin ever recorded weighed nearly 1,500 pounds.
Prized by anglers for their fighting ability, these pelagic wonders roam the waters of the North Atlantic and are pursued avidly throughout their size range, from school fish to giants. But it’s the bluefin tuna’s commercial value that has been its undoing, as rod-and-reel, harpoon, longline and oceangoing commercial fishermen from as far away as Japan pursue them across the Atlantic to feed a ravenous sushi market. Bluefin went from being considered unpalatable — most ending up as cat food — with little or no commercial value prior to 1970 to bringing the highest market prices of any fish in the 1990s. It is estimated that the value of commercially caught bluefin increased 10,000 percent in that period, according to a story in The Atlantic magazine.
You might think that a fish so revered by sport anglers and of such great commercial value would rate intense scientific study, and that organized tagging of bluefin to gather information about their spawning habits and transoceanic migrations would naturally be high on the list of such programs. If so, you might be surprised to learn that a single charter captain from Narragansett, Rhode Island, was responsible for 90 percent of the Atlantic bluefin tuna tagged and released over the last 40 years — somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,700 fish.
Meet Capt. Al Anderson, a serious, conservation-minded skipper with an unflagging passion for tagging a wide variety of fish — striped bass, bluefish, tuna, shark and others. No one person has tagged more fish in the Atlantic than this strong-willed New Jersey native, who started running charter boats out of Rhode Island in the late 1960s.
What drove Anderson to tag tens of thousands of fish? “It was my way of giving something back to fish and the fisheries because they had been so good to me,” says Anderson, 77, who retired from chartering at the end of the 2014 season.
As a charter skipper, Anderson was innovative, uncompromising and as independent as they come. He was smart, and he was good — and he didn’t hide it, which didn’t win him any popularity contests among his charter-boat peers. Truth be told, Anderson didn’t give two hoots about what other skippers thought of him or his drive to tag as many fish as possible. “I didn’t give a damn,” says Anderson. “Science wins out. A dead fish just doesn’t make it.”
A former high school science teacher, the skipper was never one to mince words — he could put forth a stream of salty invective to rival the best of them. In short, Anderson was as complex a skipper as he was a competent catcher: intelligent, exacting, driven and irascible. But he always put the resource first.
“There were a lot of people who thought I was crazy when I started,” says Anderson, the author of numerous magazine articles and five books, including Atlantic Bluefin Tuna: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and To Catch A Tuna. “They’d say, ‘You’re going to let that fish go? Come on!’ But I just ignored it. I had bigger and better things to do.”
Anderson has been honored for his conservation work more times than there is space here to list the accolades. And he is held in high regard by many of the preeminent marine scientists who have worked in the field over the last half-century. His work has benefited science, the fisheries and his fellow anglers. Four years ago, the prolific tagger was inducted into the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame.
“Through the years, Anderson has faced critics of his conservation beliefs but has remained resolute about tagging not only tuna and striped bass, but also marlin, sharks and bottom fish,” the IGFA wrote. “According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, he has tagged more Atlantic bluefin than anyone in the world. He also has more recaptures, critically important because recaptured tags provide valuable insight into migratory behavior, life spans, growth rates and population dynamics, and lead to sound management decisions and regulations.”
With good reason, Anderson is proud of the work he’s done. “We know more about the migrations of some of our great saltwater gamefish — tuna, marlin, sharks, striped bass and others — through our tagging programs,” says Anderson, who has an undergraduate degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a master’s degree in (fish) parasitology from Adelphi University. (He also took doctoral courses at the University of Rhode Island.) “That’s very gratifying.”
Some of the tuna Anderson tagged have wandered far and wide (see accompanying story). Anderson made headlines worldwide several years ago when a 14-pound bluefin he tagged in the Mudhole southeast of Block Island, Rhode Island, in 1997 was recaptured 16 years later off Nova Scotia, weighing more than 1,200 pounds. Only two other recaptured fish have been at liberty longer.
And a 26-inch, 13-pound bluefin that Anderson tagged in 1998 southeast of Block Island was recaptured 14 years later by renowned Stanford University marine biologist and bluefin researcher Barbara Block in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It had grown to 111 inches, with an estimated weight in excess of 1,000 pounds.
“Capt. Al Anderson has done more than almost any fisherman or scientist I know to keep conventional tagging of bluefin tuna going in the United States,” Block says. “His unique efforts have assured that the public, recreational anglers, scientists and government fisheries managers have data sets on movements and mixing of bluefin tuna, which can help inform better stock management.”
Although retired, Anderson enjoys fishing near shore and in the salt ponds in southwestern Rhode Island, and he still sticks a tag or two into a fish whenever he gets the chance.
Anderson has been an avid angler since boyhood. While at Adelphi, he tagged his first fish, a largemouth bass, in Lake Ronkonkoma on New York’s Long Island. “I created a homemade tag,” he says. “I recaptured that bass several times [five times], and it got me thinking about the role tagging could play in the scientific study of fish, particularly saltwater species. The tag-and-release event, if conducted quickly, appeared to have little effect on the future behavior of the fish.” This was long before there were tagging programs for recreational anglers.
Shortly after college, Anderson took a job as a teacher at Westerly (Rhode Island) High School, where he taught general biology to sophomores and a challenging human biology course to seniors. He was known for being a stern taskmaster. “I didn’t baby anyone. You earned your grade,” Anderson says. “And as a result some of my students hated my guts. That was until they went to college and realized that they were well prepared as a result.”
He started the school’s fishing club, and one sophomore who joined was Anglers Journal editor-in-chief Bill Sisson. “He was tough,” Sisson recalls. “In the fall, he’d come in after fishing or running a night charter, and he was one tired, ornery biology teacher.”
Anderson earned his captain’s license in 1967 and began chartering his 19-foot Aquasport when school was closed for summer vacation, as well as on weekends and at night when school was in session. Though he concentrated on striped bass, he also was running far enough offshore to encounter school bluefin tuna. “We mostly trolled for them,” Anderson says. “Then I figured out we could catch them on Bridgeport diamond jigs, and that was a lot of fun, especially on the tackle of the day.”
Although harvest restrictions in recent years have made sport fishing for bluefin mostly a catch-and-release proposition, the fish remains popular with anglers from the Carolinas to New England.
Anderson started tagging striped bass while studying for his doctorate at URI, which is when he became friendly with striper sharpie Bob Pond, the founder and owner of Atom Manufacturing Co. Pond had started an organization called Stripers Unlimited, a group of recreational fishermen and researchers dedicated to the conservation of the species.
“One day Pond yelled at me, ‘Why aren’t you tagging stripers for the American Littoral Society so we know what the hell you’re doing?’ ” Anderson recalls. “So I joined the ALS and started tagging bass.”
Anderson’s background in science and his keen awareness of fish behavior, combined with Pond’s less-than-gentle prodding, was all it took to set the skipper on a lifelong mission of tagging as many fish as humanly possible. Over the next 50 years, Anderson would tag and release upward of 44,000 stripers — a remarkable feat.
“Capt. Al is far and away our most prolific and successful fish tagger, with 2,229 fish tag recaptures to date,” says Jeff Dement, director of the American Littoral Society’s fish-tagging program. “Without Capt. Al’s support of our tagging program, we would not be where we are today. I am very interested in the overwinter tagging Capt. Al performed for many years in the Thames River on Hudson River-origin striped bass.”
In 1970 Anderson purchased a Rhode Island-built 26-foot Bonito, which became his second Prowler, the name that has graced the transoms of all of his charter boats. Designed by local fishing legend Dick Lema, the gas inboard-powered center console had an 11-foot beam and the range and seaworthiness to fish offshore with the bigger boats. He showcased the Bonito’s prowess by winning the Block Island Billfish Tournament several times with his wife, Daryl, as angler.
By 1980 he was in such demand as a charter captain that he took a leave of absence from teaching — and never went back to it. There were too many fish to catch and tag, even during the winter months, when he was studying overwintering populations of striped bass in the near-frozen confines of Connecticut’s Thames River. He caught, tagged and released 16,000 bass from that river alone.
During his early years in the charter business, Anderson encountered large schools of small to medium bluefin tuna during the summer months. Commercial draggers fished the area for whiting and hake and shoveled their bycatch overboard, attracting the tuna, often in huge numbers. At the time, the pioneering scientist Frank Mather was working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and trying to grow his pet project, the Cooperative Game Fish Tagging Program. Anderson was already a prolific tagger, and his reputation for catching and releasing tuna was becoming public when Mather approached him in 1967. Much in the way Pond had encouraged him to tag bass, Mather demanded that he tag pelagic species for his program. Anderson accepted the challenge.
“Mather was a strange duck, totally unique,” Anderson says. “He would not tolerate anyone failing to follow through on conservation, and when you made a commitment to tag for him you damned well better tag.”
But Anderson did more than just tag. He worked hand in hand with Mather — the two became lifelong friends — and other scientists to develop better tags and tagging techniques. “The tags in use early on were poorly designed for tuna,” says Anderson. “They had stainless steel tab-like points that worked fine on slower-moving fish, like sharks, but bluefin were just too fast and they simply pulled out. We tried various replacements, finally settling on a tag that incorporated a Hydron plastic dart that adheres to the bluefin’s tissues, locking it in place. That was responsible for a dramatic increase in returns on tagged tuna.”
Anderson developed a charter clientele who shared his conservation ethic, customers who chartered with him to jig bluefin for tagging. “Over the years I had many incredible days with those clients, catching and releasing dozens of bluefin on a typical trip and on six occasions tagging over 100 in a single day,” Anderson recalls. “My first recapture turned out to be an 18-pound bluefin my daughter caught. It was out for two years when it was recaptured by a commercial fisherman in the Bay of Biscay, off France. At first I thought it was a mistake or an error. I didn’t believe it. I was so ignorant about the movement of bluefin tuna. But Mather wasn’t surprised.”
That was in 1978, when scientists were espousing a two-stock theory: Bluefin that spawned in the Mediterranean stayed in the eastern Atlantic, and those that spawned in the Gulf of Mexico stayed in the western Atlantic. That recapture in the Bay of Biscay, in part, forced scientists and fishery managers at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas to re-evaluate their hypotheses and management assumptions. As more evidence came to light, they acknowledged that there was trans-Atlantic stock mixing, and later returns would prove it was far more significant than they had been willing to admit.
Talking fish with Anderson still elicits a boyish grin from the captain. Although striped bass may have been his first love, bluefin tuna became his greatest love. “Bluefin tuna,” says Anderson as I shared pizza with him and Daryl at their dining room table, “I knew where to find ’em and how to catch ’em, from fish in the teens to much bigger ones. My biggest bluefin broke the scales at Snug Harbor Marina — weighed over 1,000 pounds. They were so difficult for most people to catch on a routine basis. I could catch them. Most people couldn’t. I had it figured out.”
Intelligent? The veteran skipper paused. “They’re wary. Very wary,” he says. But when they’re lit up behind the boat in a chum slick, Anderson says, “They can be the easiest fish to catch if you know what you’re doing.
“A lot of people never think like a fish,” he continues. “I did. I paid attention to what the fish was doing and what I was doing. That was the bottom line.”
Bluefin tuna tagged off Rhode Island by Capt. Al Anderson have been recaptured off Libya, Sicily, Portugal, Corsica, Spain, France and Iceland, as well as several Canadian provinces.
“There was a 65-pound bluefin I caught in the Mudhole that was tagged by a guy named Ed Scott in the Gulf of Mexico just 10 days prior,” Anderson says. “That fish traveled over 1,600 nautical miles in 10 days, a migration that no one would have considered possible, but the tag proved it. To this day it is the only bluefin I have handled that definitively came from, or was tagged by me and later recaptured in, the Gulf of Mexico.”
Recaptures of Anderson’s tagged fish give a snapshot of the remarkable distances traveled and lengths of time at large.
◊ Tag No. SW001665 was a 10-pound bluefin caught in August 2004 by Anderson and a charter client; it was recaptured off the northern coast of Spain in July 2009, more than 2,700 nautical miles away from where it was tagged. The fish had grown to 143 pounds.
◊ Tag No. R340101 was an 11-pound bluefin caught on Aug. 4, 1995, that was recaptured off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on Oct. 3, 2009, hitting the scales at 840 pounds.
◊ Tag No. HM003236 was caught by Anderson on Aug. 22, 1997, and was recaptured more than 3,300 nautical miles from Rhode Island off Corsica in the Mediterranean after being at large for 2,862 days.
“I’ve recaptured 32 of my own tagged migratory gamefish, including codfish, striped bass and bluefin tuna,” Anderson says. “One bluefin was recaptured 20 minutes after it was released in the same chum slick it was pulled from, irrefutable evidence that the tag-and-release event had little, if any, influence on that fish’s behavior.”
VIDEO: Spring Tides
Anglers Journal Editor Bill Sisson reflects on the life and legacy of Capt. Al Anderson: