Follow Marine Biologist Carl Safina as he takes viewers around the world to show us how today's ocean issues are being solved in his PBS series "Saving the Ocean." You can watch full episodes online at the PBS website. Here at A/J he's giving us a behind the scenes look at each episode.
Breakfast. A hundred miles offshore Nova Scotia. The place is called Georges Bank, but the bank itself is deep beneath our hull. Our captain is Larry Sears.
We’re on the Four Ladies, a 50-foot boat that is, rather amazingly 23-feet wide, built for lobstering (which it does in winter and spring), rigged for swordfish harpooning. Rigging for harpooning means fitting the boat with a 30-foot-high “spar” or “crow’s nest” for spotting fish, and a 22-foot-long forward stand or “pulpit” from which the “striker” wields the harpoon.
Swordfish usually don’t show at the surface until the water has warmed a bit, so, we didn’t rush breakfast. When it was time, the lanky Shawn Smith and the amiable Hoss Atwood climbed the spar and we began the hunt. Seeing a blue fish just under the surface or with a fin out takes a lot of practice, skill, patience, and perseverance. Then, the boat must be maneuvered perfectly to get directly over the fish without spooking it, and the harpooner must not miss his one shot at shoving the harpoon into the fish’s back (the harpoon is not thrown).
Swordfish are magnificent, specialized predators. Yet most of what we know about them is how to kill them. We value them almost entirely only after we’ve turned them into meat. We miss almost all of what there is to appreciate about them as animals. Even in such intimate contact—as fish we catch, and as food we take into our bodies—we understand almost nothing about them.
In addition to their awesome broadsword that is more than a third the length of their body, swordfish have other amazing adaptations for feeding, including a unique muscle in their head that creates no motion but generates heat. Its function: warm the fish’s brain and its huge eyes for mental alertness and visual acuity in cold, dark water. It confers an incredible advantage over purely cold-blooded fish and squid that it hunts. But the rest of the fish’s body gets chilly after hunting in deep, frigid water. So the fish come to the surface to warm up and digest. Basically, they’re dozing.
Less than 10 minutes after Hoss and Shawn began looking, they saw fins—a swordfish, with its dorsal and tail out high. Captain Larry ran out on the stand, untethered his long harpoon shaft, and in under a minute he was over the fish. He struck it.
The “dart” detached from the harpoon shaft as it’s designed to do, and the fish then took off attached to 600 feet of rope and a 15-pound weight, all tied to a series of floats and a “high-flier” or radar reflector. Down went the coils of rope and over went the buoys and flag. Basically, the fish drags this to its death. Hours later, the boat would pick up its catch.
As a fisherman, it’s exciting; as a wildlife lover, it’s sad to see such a magnificent animal killed. As a conservationist, this type of fishing is OK, because this is a fishery that depends on abundance, doesn’t catch immature fish, and—unlike virtually every other fishery—there is no other incidental kill. These guys are after swordfish and they catch only swordfish. The number of fish they can kill is limited both by the fish’s size and behavior and by scientifically derived limits. Most importantly, while this fishery has continued to focus on swordfish, the swordfish themselves have been increasing in numbers and in size. So, though it does involve killing swordfish for people who want to eat swordfish, even for the swordfish population as a whole—it works.
We’re here not only because it’s a clean fishery but also because swordfish in the west Atlantic are the only large ocean fish in the world that are more abundant now than they were a decade or two ago. Sharks, tunas, marlins—they’ve all declined. Inshore, where hordes of cod and pollock and halibut once ruled, our skipper says there’s “nothing left to catch there.” And while this population of swordfish was in very bad shape by the late 19990s—it’s recovering.
By 11:30, we saw and struck our third fish of the morning, a fish well over 200 pounds.
Turns out, that would be the last swordfish of the day, though we saw a blue shark and a pod of pilot whales and we’d continue hunting till nearly 8 p.m.
Near sunset, our skipper judged how far we’d drift overnight, so we ran uptide far enough that we’d wake back here near our intended fishing spot. Then after dinner we climbed into our racks and slept (with no one on watch), with about a dozen other boats doing exactly the same thing in a few-mile radius. Occasionally, I’m told, boats go bump into each other during the night!
Read the next post: Sharks in the Soup
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