GLOUCESTER — Molly Lutcavage is standing on the State Fish Pier in Gloucester, watching a crane hoist a giant bluefin tuna off the back of a fishing boat.
“Look at how skinny she is,” the fisherman, Corky Decker, yells up to her. “That’s how they’ve all been — long, ugly things like you’d catch in June.”
Lutcavage nods at the fish, which is 74 inches long but weighs just 174 pounds — very skinny indeed for a tuna — then looks down at the plastic bag in her hands, which is what she’s come for. It contains the tuna’s ovaries, and Lutcavage, director of the Large Pelagics Research Center, hopes it can support a theory she first proposed two decades ago — one that would be good news for the health of the tuna population as a whole, and help explain the bad news that has plagued commercial tuna fishing this season, with poor-quality meat fetching record low prices.
Lutcavage believes that younger tuna have been spawning off the coast of New England, an idea that runs counter to the accepted belief that tuna in this part of the world spawn only in the Gulf of Mexico, and only when mature.
If Lutcavage is right, it would mean there are more tuna contributing to the population, and thus the population is larger and healthier than fishery managers and conservation advocates believe.
It would also explain why the fish being landed this season in New England have been in such poor shape. Lutcavage believes they’ve recently spawned, and the bodies of the new mothers have yet to recover from producing all those eggs.
“Let’s take the ovaries back to the lab,” she says to her research assistant, Chi Hin “Tim” Lam, with a wry smirk on her face, emphasizing the word “lab,” as if it’s wrapped in ironic air quotes.
She loads the fleshy pink meat into a cooler in the back of her pickup truck, alongside other gonads that she has been gathering from tuna fishermen all afternoon, and makes the short drive to her home in East Gloucester. She parks in the driveway as the sun is setting, walks to her garage, and pulls up the door.
“This is now the Large Pelagic Research Center,” she announces in a tone that says she’s on the fence about laughing or crying. Files and lab equipment and boxes of microscope slides are crammed in alongside gardening equipment and winter coats and her surfboard.
She and Lam had spent the previous weekend moving out of the last location of the Large Pelagic Research Center, in an attic space at Maritime Gloucester, a museum and aquarium on the harbor, after losing all her funding from the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she is a research professor.
She’s played this game of musical chairs before, as her funding has been cut and cut through the years. She says that for her, as for many in oceanography, government funding has dried up since Republicans took hold of the purse strings in the US Senate.
Making her situation even more difficult, she says: her belief that the tuna population is healthier than it is portrayed has not made her a popular candidate for funding from environmental groups. “My science does not fit their narrative that bluefin are in peril,” she says.
Lutcavage is 64 now, and this is the fourth time she has downsized her lab in Gloucester. Without university support and with her grants all dried up, she’s able to pay herself and Lam only a fraction of their salaries, mostly from contract work. And because universities expect researchers to bring in grant money, she fears UMass will soon pull their affiliation entirely.
“Officially, we’re out of business,” Lutcavage says as she shuts the garage door to keep the mosquitoes out. But Lutcavage is a field scientist, and she can’t help herself, because right now there are fish arriving daily at the docks just down the hill that could rewrite standard orthodoxy about tuna and change the management of the fishery.
They could also prove her right.
In 1999, Lutcavage published a theory that challenged the standard belief that all bluefin tuna spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, and then come north to fatten up. She proposed — based on location histories she was developing using satellite-tagged fish — that they were also spawning in the central North Atlantic.
“It was ballsy because we didn’t have the answer,” Lutcavage says.
“We didn’t have the mommies and babies,” Lam interjects, as he begins sorting through the fish pieces in the cooler.
“But it was a strong hypothesis based on where the tagged fish were showing up,” she continues.
A few years ago, a few hundred miles off the coast of New England, another scientist found the babies, the first major scientific corroboration of her work.
And now, the docks are full of more supporting evidence, as a story plays out over and over this tuna season. There are plenty of fish being caught, but the quality of their meat has been abysmal. Some fish are fetching just a dollar a pound from buyers, with the average around $4 a pound, just over half of the average last season.
“When fish are spawning they’re in extremely poor condition because all their energy is going into making eggs and sperm,” she says. “They’re either eating or spawning. They can’t do both at the same time, and if they’re not eating their muscles and fat are going to be in poor condition, and that spawning is going to take up a lot of room in their body cavity.
“In a typical year we’ve never seen more than a fish or two, if that, come into the Gulf of Maine in what we call ‘near-spawning condition.’ This year, it’s a clear pattern.”
Lam hands Lutcavage the bag containing the ovaries from Corky Decker. She puts on some latex gloves and then lays the ovary out on a cutting board that’s resting on a folding table near the garage door and begins anxiously examining it.
The tuna fishery in Massachusetts closed Aug. 9, when fishermen met their subquota for the months of June and August. It reopened on the first of September, and these ovaries were the first she was getting her hands on since then, anxious to see if the quality of fish had improved, supporting her hypothesis that they were getting further away from a recent spawning.
“Interesting,” she says as she turns the ovary over in her hands. “They’re not totally over it, Tim.”
She slices it open and they place a small sample into a vial, which they will send off for analysis. They also keep a small section of the tail fin, before moving on to the next fish gonads in the cooler. In the old days, she might have taken the whole fish head to the lab for analysis. Now, this is all they have room for.
So why is she still doing this, now that, as a friend put it, her job has become her hobby?
“I’m committed to the unknown,” she says. “The scientific mysteries that no one has solved will always continue to drive me.”
And so she will continue to prowl the docks with her cooler, looking for answers in fish guts.