Bluefin tuna are the largest finfish in the ocean and the fishermen who harpoon them, one at a time, lead a traditional, athletic, even heroic life, according to Whynott. The author spent two seasons in the company of a 47 year-old Cape Cod harpooner and tells the story of his "passionate hunt for his noble and elusive prey," as well as the struggle between the fishermen and conservationists. No scholarly trappings. Annotation copyright Book News, Inc. Portland, Or.
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Douglas Whynott teaches English and writing at Mount Holyoke College.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PART ONE The 1992 Season ( 1 ) THE SHOW
THIS WOULD be an afternoon show, Brad Sampson figured. At least it had been so far, with the bluefin rising to the surface with the slack tide in the warmer part of the day. Bluefin tuna were an epipelagic species, meaning they ranged far and lived in the upper waters of the ocean. Bluefin liked to get close to the heat of the day, to cruise with their dorsal fins above water, like sharks or dolphins. "Making water," trailing wakes, by triangular aspect revealing their courses, a purple shade moving along, that was what the bluefin harpooners looked for. That was the show. Just three days ago, July 4, the last good-weather day, Brad Sampson, a harpoon fisherman, had been near Outer Kettle off Portland when he got a call from Eric Hesse, another tuna fisherman who'd come from Cape Cod to Maine to chase the first fish of the season. Eric told Brad that fish were only "five boats," or 250 feet, away. Brad had stopped the boat and was working on the engine. When he looked up, he saw four wakes coming his way. His mate took the wheel of the Scratcher, and Brad got on the stand, and they circled around behind the school--it's much more difficult to approach bluefin by going straight at them. The boat got close, but the school settled and Brad couldn't make a throw. That was a hard opportunity to miss. You didn't see fish up like that very often. Atlantic bluefin tuna seemed to show up first off the coast of Maine, or at least that was where the first fish were usually caught. Sixteento twenty bluefin had been taken so far this season. Strangely, some bluefin arrived in Maine fat, while most came in lean. The fish taken on June 11 weighed over 500 pounds "round," 370 pounds "dressed," and brought $16 a pound in Japan. Another tuna brought $25 a pound, and a third $43, but most of the others were not good enough--not fat enough--to merit a trip to the Japanese markets. These "domestic" fish were bringing about $3 a pound and went primarily to New England fish markets and restaurants. In Japan, red tuna meat, maguro, is an essential component of a good meal, and bluefin is the quintessential maguro--the food of perfection. Served raw in thin slices as sushi or sashimi, a two-ounce serving could cost as much as $75 in Tokyo. The Japanese consumed 400,000 tons of raw fish yearly, about 35 percent of it imported, and the raw market was the only niche for American fishermen. Bluefin tuna had the highest status among imports--3 percent by volume, but 10 percent by value. Of the many sources--Australia, California, Spain, the Canary Islands--the "jumbo bluefin" of New England, because of its size, oil content, and color, was most often the bluefin with the highest status on the Japanese market. The early arrivals in the Gulf of Maine (some called them "marauders," others called them "racers") had migrated to feed on the abundant mackerel and herring. They had come days or weeks ahead of the big schools now making their way north off the Atlantic coast, or heading in from eastern waters. And in concert with their prey, the fishermen working in Maine, harpoon fishermen generally, were also in the vanguard--ahead of other harpooners, and ahead of the fleets of rod-and-reel fishermen soon to drop their lines along the underwater ledges and hills, and ahead of the purse seiners, who would begin setting their nets in August. Fish and fishermen, scouts and hunters, testing the northern waters, following instinct, following leads. Brad Sampson, twenty-two years old, a college student, son of perhaps the best tuna fisherman in New England, thought these Maine fish were "squirrelly." Moving along in singles, pairs, foursomes, they weren't "acting right"--staying still long enough to be good harpoon targets. They were skittish, and shy, and they screwed too easy. But Maine was the only game in town right now, until schools of tunashowed up off the Cape and in Massachusetts Bay, and the way to succeed in tuna fishing was to be out there when it happened, to get on the fish, to make the throws, to work the percentages.
THE SAMPSONS, and those like them, were the true sons of the whalers of old. In body and spirit, in style and confidence, speech and manner, sense and intuition, intent and determination, the fishermen who harpooned bluefin tuna in the waters of Cape Cod and the Gulf of Maine were the inheritors of the New England whaling tradition. The harpooners of the nineteenth century inherited the tradition from the Danes and Basques and the British before them, from the Native American hunters, from the fishermen who'd dried and traded their salt cod--New England's first currency. The bluefin tuna fishermen had the whaler's harpoon, the cod fisherman's persistence, and the lobsterman's boat, and in this last decade of the twentieth century, they had loran navigation systems and radios with scramblers and descramblers, and they had spotter planes. They had fax reports from Tsukiji market--like their seafaring ancestors, some had gone off to the Orient to trade. They had an international regulatory system subject to diverse contention. The bluefin tuna harpoon fishery in New England was technically advanced, and yet in its tool, that bronze harpoon head riding off the prow, it was also the most primitive, so ancient in aspect it spoke of the toggled Indian harpoon made of bone, spoke of the Eskimo hunters, spoke of the African or South American tribesman working the edge of a river a hundred thousand years ago, spoke of a preternatural tool hardened in the first fires over which the first languages drifted. Transposed whalers, then, riding the pulpit in the swell, in Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay and the Gulf of Maine. Their prey was also at a kind of apex. Thunnus thynnus (the rushingest of the rushing) was the largest of the finfish (a torpedo, ten feet long, a thousand pounds), and among the fastest (a hummingbird's response, a bumblebee's musculature, fifty-mile-per-hour bursts), and the most highly migratory (transoceanic, a tropical fish evolved to feed in subpolar waters), the most valuable (a $5,000 fish, a $50,000 fish), amongthe most fertile, and by the hue of its opalescent skin, its ovoid form, its lunate tail, perhaps the most beautiful. Bluefin swam with whales and dolphins, swam in phalanxes, shot into the air to chase bluefish or to escape killer whales. No one who had ever seen them charging along in formation, a bank of three, say, making water, would ever forget their shouldering mastery and grace. Since the bluefin was one of the most intensively sought fish, some people claimed it was the most endangered. Fishermen at government hearings, arguing against proposed decreases in U.S. quotas, talked of the balance of trade, of how they were sending product to Japan, of how their New England bluefin tuna were equivalent to Japanese automobiles--a tuna for a Toyota. The stocks, they claimed, were abundant, and the government assessments were inaccurate. As they saw it, the fishery, not the fish, was endangered.
THE FIRST time I saw the tuna fishermen at work was not on a Sampson boat but with a charter captain. He ran a million-dollar boat for a retired businessman and I had come along for the day. Heading out of Cape Cod Bay, he gave me the wheel, said he was going to make some coffee, and told me to look out for tuna. If you see a fin like a shark's, he said, yell. Soon I did see fins, and I shouted below. The captain came up the ladder but by then, after a pair of the animals had soared out of the water in crossing arcs, I knew they were dolphins. (I had a good eye for them, since at one time I'd blown whistles at trained dolphins, shouted orders at them to jump through hoops, spit out fires, wave bye-bye, and pluck pieces of paper out of my mouth at ten feet above the water.) This dolphin school, this day, loosely moving along, looked like a tribe of hunters and gatherers migrating to ancient feeding grounds. The captain crossed the tip of Provincetown and went about six miles off the Cape. Soon we saw a wake, and the flash of a tuna's side as it turned to go down. Then we saw whales feeding, dozens of them. They were finbacks and humpbacks eating sand eels, fish the size of sardines. Some whales crashed to their sides to stun the fish. Others slapped their tails or bobbed up and down, pitchpoling side by side,mouths open. The cleverest among them went below and spun circles, blowing bubble rings. When the sand eels bunched into the center, the whales coursed up with open mouths. Some whales even worked together, making communal bubble rings. Cruising among the whales were the tuna boats. Occasionally someone would run out on a pulpit, the stand projecting from the bow, but we didn't see anyone make a throw. The tuna were below the whales, snapping at the sand eels, and they weren't making themselves available, they weren't acting right. Meanwhile, two spotter planes worked the air. It seemed odd that the whales were no longer the prey, the point of the hunt in this place. Time, progress, had passed them by. They were no longer the source of food and light and bone. Only two decades earlier, the bluefin tuna, the "horse mackerel," was worth five cents a pound and served as cat food. Now this prime sushi fish was airfreighted, fresh on ice, to Japan. Standing in the tower above the wheelhouse that day, the captain said, "Catching's bad, but the fishing's good." And it was true. The bubble rings, the flapping tails, the breaching and pitchpoling, the boats with dipping pulpits and nodding towers, the drone overhead, seemed a strange dance, a confluent motion, a technological and natural spectacle, on a sunlit day, with the water soft and blue, and a view of the Wellfleet sand cliffs off to the west.
No BUBBLE feeding, not a whale in sight in the Gulf of Maine on this day. Brad Sampson and I and the first mate, St. John Laughlin, were huddled up in the tower of the Scratcher, heading away from Portland Harbor. "We should get a good charge of fish today," Brad said. "It should be an afternoon show. Conditions should be right." Though it was calm and clear, we were riding into the air, cruising along at eight knots. It was a hot day, in the eighties. Brad had smeared his sunburned nose and face with sunblock. He and his mate were wearing long-sleeve shirts, jackets, hats, and polarized sunglasses with leather side shields that cut the glare and gave a better view down into the water. Days of wearing this binocularized getupleft harpooners with pale foreheads and burned cheeks--tuna tans. Brad pulled a chart out from a cabinet in the tower and unfolded it. He pointed out the areas they'd been working--a twenty-mile path from Murray Hole to Outer Kettle to Mistaken Ground, and another twenty miles to the east, over to Toothaker Ridge, in water 200 to 250 feet deep. We were crossing the Pasture on a course for Outer Kettle, headed for a meeting with "Brooksie"--Fred Brooks, the Sampsons' spotter pilot. Brooksie usually flew for Continental Airlines, but he had recently begun a leave of absence. For the rest of the summer he would function as the Sampsons' eyes, from 900 feet. "So far we've been looking for them by sight," Brad said. "That's a lot harder. You have to stay intense all day, eight hours, looking on the water. It can get to your eyes." The Scratcher was a "stick boat," and you could spot a stick boat a long ways off. Crossing the horizon, they looked a bit like mounted knights carrying lances, with their towers perched over the wheelhouses and the long pulpits leading the way. Some towers looked like old-style mastheads with crow's nests, but others (such as the Scratcher's) were four-legged structures modeled on power-line towers. Three people could stand in the tower and ride comfortably. Climbing a tower on a moving sea was like scaling a metronome, a real test of the wrists. The Scratcher's pulpit was made of a modified utility pole. It was 25 feet in length and hinged to the bow, and could be cranked up like a drawbridge when the boat was in harbor. In the basket at the end of the pulpit was the "stand," a small piece of plywood, and at waist height was a padded "belly rail" for the harpooner to lean into while throwing. The harpoons were 12 feet long and an inch thick and made of aluminum (some Maine harpooners still used spruce poles). The bronze "dart" was shaped like an arrowhead and wired for an 800-volt charge. The dart was also attached to 600 feet of line and a "rig" of plastic balls, or a float, stick, and flag. In the way that an exceptionally long nose precedes a face, a harpooner in a pulpit preceded his boat by a second or two and could "get over the fish." Brad spotted Brooksie in the sky several miles away, and before long there was a ring on the radio. "I got fish here," Brooksie said. "Four giants." The Scratcher steamed toward the circling plane. A wing dipped, the pilot peering down, keeping his eye on the fish. "Nice fish there," Brooksie said. "Long as they're fat." "This is Brooksie's first day out," Brad said. "Everything's gonna look good to him today." "Head one o'clock," Brooksie said. Tuna harpooners use a clock system universal in plane and boat fishery, universal in nature--the circle of the sky or sea analogous to the face of a clock. The Scratcher's bow and pulpit pointed to noon. The Scratcher pushed ahead at twelve knots. "I see a stick boat," Brooksie said. Another boat was coming toward us, white water spraying off the bow. Brad said it was probably Eric Hesse, or Nick Nickerson, a fisherman from Chatham on Cape Cod, or maybe even Lexie Krause, from Monhegan Island, Maine. "Small giants," Brooksie said. "They're swimming erratically." "Small fish act a lot crazier," Brad said. "One o'clock now," Brooksie said. Brad wheeled to the right. "Keep the speed up. Keep it coming. To port just a hair, port just a bit." Sun gleamed off the plane as it turned with lowered wing. "Six boats." Six lengths away now. Brad cut the engine back and climbed down the tower. St. John took the wheel. He had been working for the Sampsons for five years. He'd just finished high school. "Touch to starboard. Four boats." Brad walked out on the pulpit, running his fingers along the guide wires. With his easy athleticism and lithe step, the polo shirt, the white-blond hair, the visor cap, Brad did look like a college student. He unfastened the harpoon, and held it out in front of the belly rail. "Swing right," came the voice from the sky. "Twelve o'clock. Two and a half boats. Two boats." Brad cupped his hand over the end of the harpoon and pointed thedart into the water a few feet ahead of the pulpit. He was rising and falling with a roll of about an eight-foot pitch. St. John cut the speed to a near drift. "Twelve o'clock. Boat and a hall. Three-quarters of a boat." Brad sighted. "He's gone." Brad hurriedly tied up the harpoon. He walked down the pulpit and ascended the mast into the tower. "You see that, Brooksie? That fish changed direction on me." "Yeah. I got another one over here. Four-hundred-pound giant." Down went the throttle and the boat roared ahead to the circling bird. "Fou...
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