Guided by Stars

FEATURE-March 2013
By Jaed Coffin
Photographs by Fred Field

Fishing for Bluefin Tuna during the Final Days of the Quota.


It was early October. For the last 11 hours, we had been anchored 15 miles off the coast of Cape Elizabeth, perched atop a narrow shelf in mostly smooth waters 35 fathoms deep. But now, nearly midnight, the swell had picked up and so had the wind, and it was raining, and on the radio NOAA had issued a small craft advisory. From the cabin of the Stella Maris, the vast darkness was illuminated only by the flooding beams of the halogen lamps that surrounded the 34-foot converted lobster boat like a neon nimbus. The captain of the Stella Maris, Jesse Field, was sitting on the bench next to me, talking on the phone to his girlfriend. “We’re standin’ by,” he told her. “Just watchin’ some Tuna TV.”

But the empty blue screen of the fish finder had not changed, had not blinked with hope since noon, when the dark arc that floated through the white band of virtual space had materialized in the form of a six-foot blue shark wrapped like a yo-yo in the 200 pound test lines of the rugged rods. Jesse had pulled one of the rods, I’d taken the other, and the bulk of the shark rose to the surface, a glowing spirit at war with itself. Above the water, it became real: a length of pale rubbery skin, an opaque black eye, menacing but vulnerable. I cradled its head in the crook of my arm while Jesse pulled the hook and still intact herring from its jaws. We cut the coils of tangled lines—dollars and dollars of line—and the shark slid into the water, trance-like and ethereal, until it snapped to life and bolted off in some very specific direction, into deep dark water that to my eye would look all the same for the several thousand miles north and east until, I suppose, the waters turned teal at the mouth of the Mediterranean, or more transparent in the subarctic regions off the coast of Labrador where, possibly, the bluefin we were waiting for might have hunted before coming south to the Gulf of Maine.

In a matter of days, the tonnage for the bluefin quota would be met, the fishing season would end, and Jesse would have to take his boat out for the winter, put it on blocks at a yard in the East End, and busy himself with something besides fishing. The bluefin, on the other hand, would swim south,to the warmer subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, to spawn. The ones that had been caught would travel too: on buyers’ trucks in Massachusetts, airplanes to Asia, to fish markets in Tokyo, where they would be sold at auctions, headless and gutless, for 50 or 100 or 200 dollars per pound, their meat thawed then consumed as little bits of pink in rolls of very expensive sushi.

For the last 36 hours, Jesse had been chasing the bluefin down the coast off Cape Porpoise, sleeping in the v-berth of his boat for an hour or two at a time, but mostly fishing through the night. But there had been too many other boats in those well-known waters—some 30 or so in a cluster. “Amateur hour ” he called it, full of the kind of fishermen who, he said, were just trying to get rich quick and “weren’t in it for the long haul.” A single father of a six-year-old girl—the Stella of Stella Maris (Star of the Sea)—his intention is to support his little family by catching and selling the bluefin.

In fact I had first encountered Jesse with his daughter, and my daughter, when both of us were at a wedding the previous spring in Eastport. While our girls played dolls, or school, or climbed rocks beside the muddy beach, he told me about his work. Although my days of commercial fishing were behind me—in the past I’d done some lobstering, and worked on trawlers for king salmon in Alaska—I knew that my blood was still vulnerable to the briny call of the sea. My ancestors on my dad’s side, the Coffins, were among the first whalers of Nantucket—a glorious but deplorable history that I knew little about. And yet, when I talked to guys like Jesse, when I heard them say things about the fundamental urge to earn a living in a fundamental way—putting food on the table by going to sea—I knew that whatever made them fish for a living was a thing that trickled in some degree in my own veins. Or maybe it was just the fact that growing up in Maine, there was nothing more compelling to me than the idea that you could make your living without having to put up with all the techno-fried bullshit of the modern world.

The other thing that intrigued me about Jesse was that, unlike most tuna fishermen I knew, he was not from a fishing family. His sister is an Episcopal minister, his mother a high school English teacher. He’d gone to Bates, majored in art. “School sucked,” he told me later, and it was that kind of refusal of normalcy that made me think that the least I could do was write about him. Before we went our separate ways, we agreed to touch base in the summer, when the tuna were in town.

That July, we made tentative plans to go out. Something came up; I dropped the ball. The following week, I called him again. When he answered, his voice was tight and jumpy, and I knew I’d missed my chance. “Just got one,” he said. “Ninetyincher.” The bluefin, dressed, had weighed 300 pounds. He’d fought it for almost an hour, had sold it to his buyer for 16 dollars a pound. By now the fish, like over 80 percent of the tuna market, had probably gone to Japan.

Two months later, I figured I’d give it another shot.

I had met up with Jesse in the late morning, at a wharf on Commercial Street in Portland, where the Stella Maris was tied off in its slip in sight of the back kitchen entrance of Becky’s Diner. I knew I’d come to the right wharf when I saw Jesse’s flatbed truck parked in front of the gate, the bumper made from two green birch logs bolted to the frame.

He was tinkering with something on the deck. He looked tired. He hadn’t caught anything and had blown through some fuel doing it, and the season was coming to its natural end. Even though his eyes were bloodshot and his voice possessed by a nervous but meditative tone, I could tell he just wanted to get back on the water. He gave me a quick tour of the vessel, pointing out where he kept the survival suits and told me how the raft over the cabin was set to inflate at water contact. As we steamed out of Casco Bay, beyond the last islands with ferry service, under paling gray blue skies trimmed with distant silver light, to the east of a massive barge fading on the horizon, he tried to find the words to explain how it was that he didn’t go crazy doing this for a living.

“It’s pretty raw,” he said. “You got to get meditative. It’s basically just bait, tuna, and depth. I’m just an observer. What I find invigorating is watching the world move. When I’m out here, I try not to concern myself too much with whether or not my family is fed.”

At eight and a half knots, it took us about two hours to get to the grounds that Jesse believed in. Without noticing the moment exactly, I found the land had disappeared, and then everything just looked the same. The sun was hidden behind a low pasture of clouds, but the sky was bright, and the water was bright, and as shearwaters glided over the sea, I had to squint to see the parade of porpoises vaulting across the horizon. I had been offshore before—not in such a small vessel—but the sensation of being surrounded by that nearly lunar remoteness was something I had never grown used to. So much depended on the boat, the engine, the fuel, the generators and batteries that powered the navigational devices and radios that connected us to our human lives in the world that had fallen out of sight. Then we dropped anchor, and Jesse turned off the engine, and suddenly the world was sublimely silent and, but for the contrast of the blue gray sky with the silver-dappled green black ocean, entirely featureless.

I netted a herring from the live well and handed it to Jesse. He studied the fish. “You look happy and healthy. Let’s send you down.” He threaded a hook through the bridge between its eyes—this way, it could swim actively for up to 12 hours—and then a weight at the end of the leader dropped to the bottom of the sea, a counter on the gold reel clicking off the fathoms. “That’s the enthusiasm we like,” he said to the herring. “Go, go, go.”

After the bait was set, I sat on the stern cooking hot dogs and sausages on the propane grill while Jesse told me what he loved so much about tuna: their massive, softball sized eyes; the fact that they’re the fastest fish in the sea and can swim 40 miles per hour, can migrate 5,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to Labrador—the more eastern stock from Norway to the horn of Northern Africa. The way they fight, fight, fight—in Jesse’s experience, typically for 45 minutes at a time; in unofficial historical record, for 62 hours, as reported by a Nova Scotia man in the 1960s. One of the only fish that can, like a mammal, regulate its own body temperature, the bluefin tuna can also move itself with its tail alone, streamlining the rest of its body for maximum speed.

The most baffling, humbling, and, to me, spiritually perplexing feature of bluefin has to do with the mysterious pinhole behind its forehead: what scientists have come to refer to as its “third eye”—or more technically, its pineal window. Although the research on how the pineal window functions is inconclusive, experts believe that tuna, by diving and rising rapidly at dawn and dusk, are able to map the ocean by the various qualities of ambient light reflected along the path of their migration. Somehow, the pineal window turns this memory of light into information that is sent to the pineal gland in the brain, which then charts the various light records like a series of waypoints on the GPS system of the Stella Maris.

Whole constellations of light that I, as a human, will never see. In my mind, the magic of this innovation is something that seems no more an argument for the wonder of evolution than evidence of the will of some brilliant god. Neither explanation is remotely sufficient.

“I think they can navigate by the stars,” Jesse said. “And if that doesn’t give you a sense of wonder, then there’s something wrong with your head.”

And yet, the pineal window is not the only thing about bluefin that the people who study them do not understand. The bluefin has not been fished seriously for very long. By some accounts, the fishery did not develop fully until after World War II, when a decimated Japan, during a period of rapid, American-assisted reconstruction, developed a taste for the fatty meats of the American palate. One solution was the rich meat of the tuna’s belly. Over the course of the next decades, the tuna fishery exploded. The explosion, of course, was followed by implosion. Over the last 40 years, scientists have seen a 40 percent decline in the stock of eastern bluefin. Some researchers have noticed a significant decrease in the size of bluefin, and in the quality of their meat. The controversy is borne of statistics mired in politics—politics of conservation, economy, and cultural heritage.

From 2010 to 2011, the federal bluefin quota dropped from nearly 1200 tons to 800 tons. In 1950, roughly 300,000 tons of tuna were caught in the Atlantic, compared to 78,000 in 2007. In 2010, several environmental groups rallied to have the bluefin deemed an endangered species. The debate got ugly. Our own Senator Olympia Snowe, as well our congresswoman Chellie Pingree, expressed “relief” when bluefin were not deemed endangered; the storied fishery would not end. But the ruling was not evidence that the bluefin tuna were thriving, either.

In reality, no one really knows how many bluefin tuna there are in the world. They swim too fast, migrate too far, and spawn in patterns too irregular to keep track of. There was a time when people assumed that bluefin that spawned in the Gulf of Mexico and made their way on a linear voyage into the Gulf of Maine and north were a specific stock distinct from the bluefin that spawned in the Mediterranean and traveled up the coast to Scandinavia. Now, through various tracking methods, it’s clear that many fish traverse the Atlantic, mix with each other, migrate in unpredictable patterns that follow no obvious map. The flurry of controversy that surrounds the bluefin is, in many ways, a metaphor for our efforts to understand their quantum-like existence.

The role that Mainers like Jesse have to play in this mysterious drama is still somewhat ambiguous. Five hundred and fifty tuna permits are issued in Maine each year. Fishermen hunt tuna in diverse ways: with long lines, harpoon, seines, or, in the old fashioned way we were, with heavy-duty rod and reel. That a young man should wish to make his living by the sea—not in the name of family heritage, or in the tradition of his fishing community, but merely by his own thirst for intimate connection to his work—does not seem to have anything to do with Tokyo, or global politics. And yet it does.

Out here, as the light faded imperceptibly into night, as the minor swell imperceptibly shifted to a mosaic of breaking waves, as the thin rain of the afternoon became gradually unpleasant, we watched Tuna TV as if our relationship to the bluefin was determined only by the decision we’d made to re-bait the lines with the squids we’d jigged four hours ago.

And then the sea got really rough.

“What I don’t want right now,” Jesse said, “is to hook a big thresher shark that’s going to take us an hour to cut loose.”

As the bow of the Stella Maris rose and fell, we talked about our girls, and how Jesse’s mother wished he’d fish with a partner on a more consistent basis. He told me about another fisherman who’d tried to land a tuna when it was “too hot”—not tired enough from the fight not to thrash—and how the tuna had literally dragged the man into the water, and drowned him. “I tell her it’s about the guy behind the wheel, and how he handles the wind and sea conditions. Having a guy on board, after two or three days it’s like ‘I like you…but….’ If I get lonely, I’ll just talk to someone on the radio.'”

Jesse said it must be similar to writing: the solitude, the self-reliance. “It’s a nomadic existence,” he said. He told me that tuna fishing is rarely a sole source of income. I told him about the comments my old lobster captain used to make whenever we saw the zombie-like faces of the guys who’d been out for tuna for too long. “Tuna wishing,” he called it. But I had always admired those guys. Lobstermen, in my mind, were the nine-to-fivers of the Maine fishery; tuna fishermen were the hustlers, the gamblers.

“When I’m out here, you know, there’s a philosophical question in my head: what is a fulfilling life? I’ve done real estate, tried some other things. But I wasn’t soulfully happy. That kept nagging at this little piece of my mind. Out on the water, I’m alive. I’m connected. It’s taken me a while to figure out what I’m doing, making sure my wallet can buy some dinner. My daughter gets what I do for work. Her teachers tell me she’s proud of what I do. When she comes out here, she’s enamored with whales and birds.”

The screen of the fish finder was still blank, and still empty, as it had been for the last six hours. “But at some point,” Jesse said, “you got to put some fish on the deck.”

Then there was a dark streak on the screen. The air tightened and I got that irrationally hopeful feeling in my fingertips. I began to imagine things: the silver-blue body of a tuna, inspecting the squid, bracing to strike. I got off the bench; so did Jesse. We watched the rod tips bobbing with the swell. Minutes passed. More minutes passed. Then the mark on the screen was gone. We sat for another hour, but no more marks. NOAA was still posting a small craft advisory. Neither of us wanted to go in. Sometimes it takes a sign. A small finch, the size of my fist, which had somehow come to rest on the stern, seduced maybe by the same call of the sea that had dragged us out here, flew into the cabin, sat just inches from us, perched upon the wires of the computer systems, next to the heat of the muffler. It did not sing, but I felt as if it had come into the cabin with a message. It remained there, patiently staring at us with the same black eyes that I’d seen on the blue shark as we’d cut it loose, the bird, though, less afraid of us than of the weather outside.

“Let’s go in,” Jesse said.

We put on our rain gear, pulled the lines, cleared the decks, set course for Portland. I watched the journey of the Stella Maris as a red line moving across a computer screen of orange and red depth contours. As humans, comparatively unmagical beings void of light-mapping third eyes, this was maybe the best we could do.

A few hours later, the lights of Portland burned in the distance, and the sea calmed. As we unloaded our gear onto the wharf, I had this revelation about time: how it really doesn’t matter. Twelve hours offshore really felt like two days on Mars. In a few days the bluefin quota will be met. Three months from now, in early January, a man in Japan will buy a 435-pound pacific tuna for a record-setting $1.76 million—a sum which nearly doubles the previous record of $736,000 (a purchase made by the same man; a publicity stunt, most likely). For now, I pretend that none of that has anything to do with the Stella Maris, or the stars of the sea by which the bluefin find their way back to Maine.

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