Guest contribution and excerpt by Matt Rigney.
The story of Canadian swordfishing in the North Atlantic, and especially of the remaining harpooners who practice a method of harvest that dates back more than three thousand years, provides a drama in microcosm of the problems and challenges of every modern fishery I can think of. The dynamics are the same whether one looks at the bluefin tuna fisheries in Japan, South Australia, and the Mediterranean, or at the struggle for access to resources in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.
The forces at play include all those we have come to expect in any situation where natural resources and profits are at stake. They include greed, corruption, malfeasance, and negligence as well as the politics of resource management for profit in a world where technologies give us the power nearly of gods—to see into the depths of the ocean, to track temperature breaks and currents from space, and to manipulate industrial gear powerful enough to move boulders the size of small houses, dropped on the ocean floor by glaciers, or to annihilate slow-reproducing species like leatherback sea turtles and porbeagle sharks by means of a single longline filament suspended under the surface of the sea, again and again, year after year, mile after mile after mile.
Author Matt Rigney on Swordfish Harpoon Stand
And while there are real culprits—individual men and women in corporations, private business, and in government—who bear personal, moral responsibility for their role in knowingly damaging resources and stocks, sometimes beyond repair, there is also another, equally pervasive villain in the story of fisheries management in the last fifty years. That culprit is a cultural mindset based on the profoundest ignorance—the failure of our entire society to understand and accept that natural systems have limits. This, paired with our blind and willful faith in the application of technology to always give us a better life amount to failures of the imagination, and perhaps even more damningly, to profound failures of the spirit.
Please enjoy a short excerpt from Rigney’s excellent book, In Pursuit of Giants:
It is nine in the morning and we are a hundred miles at sea, directly south of the southernmost tip of Nova Scotia, 225 miles due east of the elbow of Cape Cod. After a breakfast of eggs, bacon, potatoes, bread slathered with margarine, tea and instant coffee, we layer ourselves against the chill and come up topside. The wind in our faces is heavy with moisture but there is as yet no fog, and the sky overhead has the appearance of dirty gray wool. I am fishing with the crew of the harpoon boat Brittany & Brothers, out of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia. The harpoon stand, suspended like an aluminum drawbridge, runs eighteen feet out from the bow and plunges down into the troughs, then swings up fifteen or twenty feet in the air as we climb the next wave. The swells are between six and eight feet, the wind moderate at twelve knots. I take a spot on the foredeck, leaning against the welded ladder running up the spotting tower. As the whole ship rocks, the tower swings violently back and forth like the bar on a metronome. Fifteen feet above that is the high spotting post. Saul Newell, the captain, is up there getting his ass kicked. Dwaine D’Eon, the harpooner, and Saul’s father, Gabby Newell, are in the steering station. We are looking for the crescent-shaped fins of the broadbill swordfish.
The broadbill is armed with a long, heavy bone sword, sharp on the edges, tapered to a point, and up to one-third its body length. It uses this weapon for hunting and for defense against its chief predator, the mako shark. Swordfish are among the fastest of fish, but it is their dauntless power, their abyssal solitude, and their warrior heart that makes them unique. Tales of marlin or tuna attacking boats are all but unheard of, but accounts from historians, early explorers, and the old dory harpooners repeatedly cite instances of swordfish running their swords clean through the thin lapstrake shells of wooden skiffs and the thick oak hulls of colonial sailing ships. Of all the great pelagics, only the swordfish has the brio, the pugnacity, the courage, and the brawling disposition to earn the nickname given to it: the gladiator.
The skin of a swordfish changes color with temperature and the mood of the fish.
We are bucking these seas over an area called the Northeast Peak of George’s Bank, six hundred feet above a gravel-and-rock sea bottom of gentle hills and flats, dotted (where it has not been scraped lifeless by draggers) with bright-pink, orange and red fan corals and populated with skates, cod, haddock, scallops, and other bottom species. A few miles behind us lies the edge of a thirty-mile-wide U-shaped trough known as the Northeast channel of the Gulf of Maine. We are headed over the peak to the edge of the continent itself.
I imagine that we are sailing toward cliffs like those at the edge of the Grand Canyon, and this is not far from the truth. The edge of the continental shelf is fissured with steep canyons that cut back into the plateaus of the banks and plunge three thousand feet in the space of a quarter mile. We are headed for a specific area that our navigation software reveals to be an enormous plunging amphitheater, its steep walls and slopes falling into frigid, yawning blackness. For the next week we will occupy a twenty-mile by twenty-mile box over this chasm, spending most of our time scanning the waves.
Captain Saul Newell
It might seem like a strategy unlikely to pay off. But overhead, Saul calls out in the wind, “Swordfish, two o’clock. You see him, Dwaine?”
“Yuh, I got him.” The metal gate in the steering station rattles open, and Dwaine drops down the ladder.
Gabby throttles back the engine and the boat slows. The fins are visible now, two rounded crescents about eighty feet ahead us. The fish disappears in the swell, then appears again as the wave passes. Dwaine unties the harpoon from where it’s lashed at the end of the stand and swings it around to his right side.
“Where is it?” he yells, leaning forward and scanning.
“Right in front of you, fifty feet, starboard side, “ I shout.
Dwaine d’Eon lining up a harpoon shot on a swordfish
It looks like a small fish, the fins maybe two, three feet apart. We keep coming on it, so slow it feels as if the swells are pushing us back. Twenty feet now and Dwaine poises. Ten feet, and now for the first time in my life I am seeing a broadbill swordfish tip to tail. It is not as small as it seemed from a distance: its dorsal and tail fins are four to five feet apart, with the sword extending another three feet forward. Its topside is a luminous, unforgettable lavender. It has a strange, wide caudal keel like two stiff squid wings just forward of its tail, and all the way up front a strange, birdlike head and that prodigious sword.
I hardly get a look before Dwaine’s over it and leaning to plant the harpoon. In that instant the fish senses him and bends in an arc— not even quickly; it just bends, and the harpoon misses. Then, with a sudden, massive pump of its tail, the swordfish turns, dives, and is gone. Dwaine lets out a roar of frustration.
Matt Rigney has been fishing New England fresh and saltwater for nearly 40 years, 25 of those off the coast of Kennebunkport, Maine. In Pursuit of Giants: One Man’s Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish” is the story of his five-year, 75,000-mile round-the-world journey to encounter the great fish of the sea–marlin, bluefin tuna, and swordfish–and to tell the story of their decline in the past 50 years. “In Pursuit of Giants” was nominated for a 2013 Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction. To watch a short trailer about the book, or to purchase it, visit www.inpursuitofgiants.com.