Tuna Fishing: the good, the bad, and the lucky

  By Brett Tolley, NAMA’s Community Organizer

120 miles offshore is a long way for a 45 ft. commercial fishing boat. We headed east out of the small Chatham, MA fish pier at 3pm and arrived to the eastern George’s Bank fishing grounds at 5am, a 14-hour trek! My father took the first two-hour watch, then my cousin, and then me. Upon arrival it was pitch black, the water was covered with a thick wet fog, and I was already exhausted.

During the 14-hour ride we had one thing on our mind, tuna fish. At 5am we jumped on deck and started prepping the rod and reels that would hopefully deliver us an early tuna. Rod preparation includes a few things: cleaning off the leader (the final stretch of line attached to the hook) to remove excess dirt, using a black marker to cover any exposed metallic pieces on the hook and leader that might deter a hungry tuna, and sowing the hook inside the mouth of the bate, which in our case was a tasty mackerel.

To attract the tuna fish we chop up frozen herring, called ‘chum’, and toss it overboard in light dosages. Chumming creates an attractive oily layer on the ocean surface, called a ‘slick’, which diffuses around the bate dangling down anywhere from 10-25 fathoms deep (60-150 ft).

Tuna tend to feed most during the morning day-break and the evening twilight. Most fishermen hope to catch one during each of these periods but if you are doing well you can get two. And in the most fortunate of times you can land three, which under federal regulations is the maximum amount per vessel per trip. We always hope for three.

My first morning was unfortunately slow and there were no bites. I was beginning to feel my father and cousin’s doubt creep in, thinking I should have stayed at the pier. Perhaps I had brought bad luck to the boat. After chumming for about 30 minutes it was time to move on to another location. A bit discouraged and disappointed, we decided to reel in the rods, my father on one, my cousin on another, and myself on the third. As I reeled gingerly, I felt a gentle tug on the line. I figured it was a snag in the twine and didn’t think twice. But after two more tiny pulls my cousin looks over and yells, “We’re on!!”

In the blink of an eye my cousin jumped in between myself and the pole and started reeling furiously. I quickly learned that landing a tuna takes tremendous skill and effort. Mostly because there are a hundred things that can go wrong, the worst being a line that snaps. The trick to avoid this is to minimize any slack in the line. When the tuna swims toward the boat you reel like a madman, which was exactly my cousin’s technique. Two hours later after a long battle, letting the tuna swim out and back in again, skillfully navigating the boat to set up the most strategic positions, we had the tuna on deck! It turned out what I thought was a snag in the line was in fact a 600 lb. blue fin tuna fish.

After the tuna was dressed (bled, removed the head and guts, and cleaned the insides) and was on ice we moved to the next spot. My father and cousin made clear that I was not a bad luck omen after all. A nice relief! In fact they had me touching each rod every 10 minutes or so believing my luck would hook us another big tuna. Although I didn’t instigate another bite, we did get our three tuna for that trip. Luck, it seemed, had little to do with it as my father has been commercially fishing for over 40 years.


New England small-scale fishermen like my father have traditionally relied on groundfish (cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, etc.) as their primary catch. However, with recent trends in fleet consolidation many family fishermen are being squeezed out of the groundfish fishery. The squeeze, in spite of reducing the number of fishermen, does not reduce the effort or the amount of fish being caught. Instead it merely replaces fishermen like my father with larger-scale industrial operations. And in turn, just like a family evicted from a gentrifying neighborhood, small-scale fishermen move on to another fishery, in this case tuna.

What does displacing the small-scale fishermen do to a fishery? To the ecosystem? Communities? Our local source of seafood? These questions are critical to our work around fleet diversity and the Who Fishes Matters Campaign. Check in again soon to learn about a recent Fisheries Council vote to move fleet diversity policy forward. In the meantime, here’s a link showing all the support we got!

As I watched my father smile at the site of three tuna on the boat’s deck, knowing what great care and pride he takes in all his fishing efforts, I wondered if the person replacing him in the groundfishery will have that same ethic. I wondered if my cousin will have the chance to fish in the groundfishery just as his father, grandfather, and great grandfather did. Or will he be replaced by an industrial, vertically integrated fishing corporation?

As I’m sitting here at the pilots seat after our two-day trip I’m feeling proud of my family’s tradition, exhausted from the long couple of days, and frustrated at the displacement of our small-scale fishermen. And now we have a 14-hour drive ahead! I’m hoping to bring more luck tomorrow.