Gloucester Times – By Richard Gaines

Bluefin Tuna Central

With its in- and offshore waters a cavorting grounds for the noble, mysterious and highly migratory bluefin tuna, the port of Gloucester has long been a haunt of bluefin fishermen, blue fin buyers and exporters.

Now, thanks to a partnership between the state Division of Marine Fisheries and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the old research station at Hodgkins Cove in Bay View — once the site of the loading dock for shipping Gloucester granite, and more recently a UMass seafood research laboratory — is about to become the new, permanent home of a small but globally influential research laboratory dedicated to the study of bluefin tuna and other long- distance marine travelers.

“It’s just such a perfect fit on so many levels,” said Paul Fisette, chairman of the UMass Department of Environmental Conservation.

To introduce herself and her colleagues to the community, internationally-known tuna scientist and center director Molly Lutcavage has organized a free lecture series at the Gloucester Marine Heritage Center beginning next Thursday and for the next five Thursdays at 7 p.m.

She will deliver the first lecture about the lab, whose focus also includes other large pelagics, including sea turtles, sharks and billfish.

The Large Pelagics Research Center arrives in Gloucester, which Lutcavage has long called home, just as a lengthy scientific argument over the relative stability of the bluefin — tracing to the onset of marine science and the first tentative efforts to understand the apex fish of all the oceans — reaches a defining moment in a crescendo of bitter recriminations.

On a petition of the Center for Biological Diversity, and floating on a wave of anxious green warnings, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has undertaken a status review of the bluefin to determine if, as the center alleges, the fish is “the verge or extinction” and should be granted Endangered Species Act protection.

With such, the tuna — which grows to more than 1,000 pounds and can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Japan-dominated bluefin sushi market — could no longer be hunted in U.S. waters for the challenge and rewards.

A decision is expected this spring.

The fierce scientific dispute has enlisted a coalition of anti-fishing activists and environmental writers like Paul Greenberg, who worries in the book “Four Fish” that “the population of North Atlantic bluefin may have already imploded beyond the point of discovery.”

Lutcavage, however, does not share the dystopic vision. With years of experience, tagging, tracking and revising the science while the center was at the University of New Hampshire and now at UMass-Amherst (after a changing of the guard at UNH and the expiration of a congressional earmark for the lab), and through working collaboratively with fishermen, Lutcavage said she opposes the Endangered Species Listing.

“Our own tracking of movements and migrations, fisheries trends, and known distribution and availability of bluefin tuna here and in other parts of the Atlantic doesn’t support it,” she told the Times in an e-mail. “Bluefin reproductive patterns of broad spawning across multiple areas and release of millions of eggs is also very different from marine species that are in big trouble.”

Her word carries. She has been on the U.S. advisory committee to ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), since the mid-1990, serving as both a committee member and technical advisor and remains involved in multiple efforts to demystify the great fish which whose back yard stretches across the breadth of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Lutcavage said she and her team — three staffers and three grad students — have no official role in determining the status of the bluefin, but NOAA’s review team “has consulted us for our opinion on the status of juveniles and shifts in distribution of adults.”

To fishermen, Lutcavage is revered as a hero, whose fealty to science is seen as exceptional.

“Whatever what the science is, the science is,” said Steve Weiner, a tuna fisherman, director of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Association, and former ICCAT advisor. “We have forces out there that are trying to pollute the science.

“Her idealism shines through,” Weiner said. “There are other bluefin tuna scientists … I won’t name names … who are just the opposite: They won’t share things, they follow the money, they kind of prostitute themselves. Molly never has been like that.”

If penury is a sign of integrity, Lutcavage and her little research center are heaven bound.

“We’re not a little research center,” she objected. “We’re a major center with a small budget” with global scientific capabilities through academic collaborations.

And it has a larger future, according to Fisette and Steve Goodwin, dean of the College of Natural Resources and the Environment at UMass Amherst.

They both emphasized the natural synergies with the city and the Division of Marine Fisheries, which has a field laboratory of its own near the Annisquam River closer to the Cut.

State marine fisheries director Paul Diodati, and Mary Griffin, the state commissioner of fish and game, were also instrumental in reeling in the laboratory after Lutcavage made known her hope to transport the laboratory from Durham, N.H. to Hogkins Cove.

The speakers in the “2011 Fish and Fisheries Public Seminar Series” highlight the range and interests of the center.

After Lutcavage’s introductory lecture next Thursday (7 p.m. and the Marine Heritage Center, Harbor Loop for all lectures), Walt Golet of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute will speak on April 7 about bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Maine.

On April 14, James Sulikowski of the University of New England will lecture on spiny dogfish, a species whose condition is fiercely disputed and intimately known to exasperated striper and groundfishermen.

On April 21, Gregory Skomal of the Division of Marine Fisheries, will lecture on great white sharks that have been an more common presence near shore along the coast in recent years.

Then, on April 28, Francis Juanes of Umass Amherst will lecture on Piscivorous fish — fish that eat other fish or their own kind.

The series ends on May 5 with Andy Danylchuk’s lecture on the Great Barracuda, “the under appreciated apex predator of the tropical seas.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at .