Changing Planet

The Bottom Line: Fishing for Giants

The newest reality TV stars aren’t college kids thrown together in a group house, or a couple who race around the world to win a million dollars. They are the men, and occasionally the women, who do the jobs that many of us didn’t even know existed: the axmen from the Pacific Northwest, the ice-road truckers in the Arctic, the reptile dealers from Florida. This type of reality series follows people as they do their daily jobs, documenting their successes and failures, their high points and heartbreaks.

Last night, seven years after audiences met a fleet of Alaskan crab fishermen via “Deadliest Catch,” National Geographic Channel premiered a show profiling the men and women who make their living on the ocean. “Wicked Tuna” follows five boats and their crews as they pursue bluefin tuna more than 100 miles from their home port of Gloucester, MA. Using only rods and reels, these fishermen set out in search of tuna that weigh hundreds of pounds. As you would expect, they meet their share of triumphs and disappointments: A few large bluefin are caught, but much of the time is spent waiting for a bite.

When ads for the show began appearing, it was not surprising that “Wicked Tuna” attracted a lot of attention, both positive and negative. Some say National Geographic is glorifying the killing of a threatened species and the program will increase the demand for bluefin, further jeopardizing its survival. Others responded that the series simply portrays a group of hard-working fishermen going about their lives, following in the footsteps of generations of New Englanders who came before them.

As is often the case, the truth may fall between these two positions. I have written before that the Atlantic bluefin population has fallen dramatically in the past 50 years because of decades of unsustainable fishing. Although some people would like all fishing for the species stopped, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which manages this species and operates by consensus, is not likely to shut down the fishery. Given that reality, how can we improve the chances of bluefin recovery? One way supported by the Pew Environment Group is to improve compliance with the annual quotas set by ICCAT through reductions in the significant amount of illegal and unreported fishing in the Mediterranean and unintentional catch in the United States.

Much of that incidental catch occurs south of New England along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico. Each spring, longline boats fishing for yellowfin tuna and swordfish in the Gulf, using 30-mile lines baited with hundreds of hooks, unintentionally haul in bluefin tuna at the height of their spawning season. Most of these fish are thrown back dead. The damage does not stop there, because this indiscriminate fishing method also captures and kills other nontarget species, including blue marlin, sailfish, and endangered sea turtles. Fortunately, more selective types of gear are available as alternatives to surface longlines, two of which are being tested now in the Gulf. Buoy gear and green sticks primarily hook the fish they target (yellowfin tuna and swordfish) while greatly reducing the number of bluefin and other ocean wildlife that are caught and killed.

Promoting selective fishing that wastes little ocean wildlife is one key to the bluefin’s recovery. Fishermen who use rods and reels, such as those profiled in “Wicked Tuna,” can specifically target the species and release undersized fish alive. This is important, because fishermen using non-selective gear such as surface longlines are not regulated by the number of bluefin that are killed, but rather by the number that are kept. So, although quotas are needed for bluefin populations to recover, curbing total mortality by reducing incidental catch is also essential.

The rod-and-reel fishermen who catch bluefin tuna deserve to have their stories told. “Wicked Tuna” has the opportunity to introduce TV audiences to this magnificent fish, the men and women who pursue them, and the types of fishing gear they use. National Geographic is working hard to present a balanced view, highlighting both the fishermen and conservation concerns.

Click here to learn more about the show.

Lee Crockett joined The Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. As Ddirector, U.S. Oceans, he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management in the United States under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law that governs ocean fish management. As director, Crockett oversees all of Pew’s U.S. fisheries campaigns. These include efforts in the Northeast, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean, and the Pacific. Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Under his leadership, the campaign helped efforts to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues. Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s also an avid angler who enjoys fishing the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
  • Peter Dearborn

    As a commercial rod and reel tuna fisherman I have a bias because I do think rod & reel along with harpooning are the safest methods to protect the fishery. I don’t know how many discards there are with long lining so this for me is questionable. In my opinion what decreases the population of these magnificent fish is great numbers is purse seining, tuna farming, and the lack of enforcement in Eastern Europe to the Mediterranean Sea of illegal fishing. False data from so called “tuna experts” to make it seem like the fish are declining faster than what is true. I see thousands of fish every season in the northern coast of the Atlantic and the stocks are good and healthy and growing. Because the fish travel back and forth from the Atlantic to Eastern Europe I would like to see the elimination of tuna farming, purse seining and strict enforced regulations like we follow here in the northeast. Fishing with rod and reel to harvest these fish is an honest way to make a living an experience that should continue for generations just like lobstering has and to have someone possibly take that away from us or even threaten to take that away from us under false data would be devastating. Thank you for allowing my comment.

  • Howard M. Stine

    After two episodes of “Wicked Tuna” I would suggest you change the program name to “Wicked Tuna Fishermen”. Never in all of my life have I ever seen such a bunch of whining, egotistical, selfish, “don’t come anywhere near me fishermen”. Just who do these guys think they are? It seems to me, and I don’t believe that I am alone, that they sincerely think they own the Atlantic Ocean! I don’t care who they are, they don’t have any more right to catch the tuna then anyone else, and that includes people who don’t necessarily know what they are doing. I live on the Chesapeake Bay, where literally thousands of watermen make a living fishing, crabbing, oystering and harvesting any kind of seafood that is legal and in season, I even have a commercial license myself, but never have I ever seen the likes or actions of this bunch. In fact watching one literally brought to tears, when he believed someone had rode over his hooked tuna, by observing a chafe in his mainline, are they fishermen, or are they children. If you are out to prove that this kind of fishing is a “dog eat dog” and “stab your buddy in the back” world, I think you are doing a marvelous job. I don’t care if they are fishing for a living, so are a lot of other people and I have never seen behavior like this in my life. And I don’t care how much they are worth, they are “fish”. Let me tell you what I think this program will do. It will give a bad name and a put bum rap on commercial fishing in general. As for me, I don’t think I can take another episode of watching of bunch of grown men, act like a bunch of two year olds.

    Howard M. Stine

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