Death of a Giant
Stalking the disappearing bluefin tuna
From Harper’s magazine
Steve Weiner sprays his sunglasses with Windex, polishes them, holds them toward the 6:30 A.M. sun, sprays and polishes and inspects them again. The glasses, which have polarized lenses and stylish leather blinders to keep out the light, are necessary for looking through the shield of glare on the surface of the ocean and seeing the tuna underneath. Ahead of the Elizabeth Ames, due east, is the open ocean. Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is a white smudge at our stem. Brooks Weiner, wearing glasses like his brother’s, swings into the cabin and punches a few coordinates into loran. Then he looks through the wheelhouse glass and says, “Sure would be nice to get onto the mother lode with no one else around.”
The most valuable wild animal in the world is not the white rhino, which is killed for its horn, nor the leopard, which is killed for its hide, nor the brown bear, which is killed for its gallbladder. It is the giant bluefin tuna. At the daily tuna auction in Tokyo it is not unusual to see a single giant bluefin tuna sell for $30,000. A few years ago, one giant sold for $83,500. Some giants, however, sell for a mere $3,000; much depends on the quality of the fish–the fatter the better. The fat is what the Japanese pay so much money for. The fattest part of a giant tuna is the meat running in a diagonal stripe across its belly, which the Japanese call toro. In Japan there is a vocabulary to describe the belly of a giant tuna that is as rich as our vocabulary about wine. A good piece of toro has a rind of glistening fish fat surrounding remarkably red and lustrous flesh, which is itself shot through with delicate, sugary strings of fat. “In Japan we are concerned with status in all things, including food,” says Sadanori Gunji, the author of The Flying Bluefin Tuna, a book about the phenomenon of giant tuna in Japan. “It is necessary to have a food with a higher status than any other, and that is the toro of the giant bluefin.” Only a tiny percentage of the Japanese population can afford good toro, which costs about $75 for two bite-size pieces and is available only in the best sushi bars. “The very best toro you cannot buy at all,” Mr. Gunji says. “It is eaten in private dinners by our politicians and business executives.”
The most valuable giant tuna are caught off the coast of New England and Canada, from June through early November. The fish migrate here each summer from the Gulf of Mexico to feed on schools of herring, mackerel, butterfish, and pogies living around the Georges Bank. The quantity of food, together with the cold water, makes the tuna fatter than hogs. Pulling a giant tuna from these waters is like going into a bank and helping yourself to cash. A good-quality giant is a new car, a year’s worth of boat payments, a winter vacation in the Caribbean. But there are not many fishermen like the Weiners, who have the gear and the expertise to catch giant tuna. giant tuna destroy nets, snap rods, and will fight on the end of a line until their muscles burn up and their hearts explode.
The Weiners are harpoon fishermen, which is to say they are more like hunters than fishermen: they stalk giant tuna in the open ocean. In a good season they will get around forty giants. Steve, forty-one, is three years older than Brooks, and is very much the older brother. When you talk to Steve, even when he’s off the water, he always seems to be scanning the horizon, searching for a fin or a little wake or some other sign of a fish. Brooks is more of a hothead. Brooks broke his nose eight times playing hockey in college (“A good shot each time,” he says) and has a thin white scar on his nose from reconstructive surgery. He has a way of leading with his nose when he’s talking to you. Also on board is Kevin Wilson, the Weiners’ mate, who is up in the tuna tower driving the boat, and Chris, Steve’s twelve-year-old son, who is in his berth reading a comic book.
The tuna tower is twenty-eight feet high and is accessible by wire ladders called ratlines. Scanning the water from this vantage point, Kevin says that this calm water is good for seeing tuna but that a little chop would make it harder for the tuna to hear the boat coming. Steve climbs the ratlines and he and Kevin stand with their backs to each other, facing port and starboard, turning their heads in 120-degree arcs over the gently shifting planes of water. Brooks is sitting in a sling just below them, scanning the forward arc. Timmy Voorheis, piloting the Weiners’ spotter plane, seesaws in the sky overhead; his voice, with the drone of the airplane in back of it, occasionally sounds over a loudspeaker in the tuna tower. His conversations with Steve are electronically scrambled, so that other fishermen on the water can’t hear them. Also in the tuna tower is a radio scanner, which crackles occasionally with the voices of other fishermen. Sometimes a fisherman will get excited, or forget, and talk on an unprotected channel about tuna he’s seeing. Steve will slip a line through this piece of information and hang it up in his mind.
One reason why the price of bluefin tuna is so high is that there are so few of them left in this part of the ocean, and one reason why there are few of them left is that the price is so high. According to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, an organization that monitors and tries to regulate the fishery, the numbers of adult giant bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic Ocean have declined drastically since the mid-Seventies, when the Japanese market for these fish opened. A graph based on these figures looks like one of those charts of company earnings in business cartoons, with the head of the company perched on the window ledge about to jump out. On the left side of the graph, in the year 1970, the giant -tuna population is 220,000. On the right side of the graph, in the year 1990, the population has dropped nearly 90 percent and stands at less than 25,000. Of course, these numbers are hotly disputed by the Weiners and many other commercial tuna fishermen.
The decline in giant bluefin is not so different from what is happening to other commercial species of fish on the Atlantic coast of the United States. The American Fisheries Society concluded a recent report by saying, “[The] majority, if not virtually all, of the important fin fish stocks …off the [Atlantic] and Gulf of Mexico coasts of the U.S. are overfished or are clearly on the way to that condition.” Haddock, cod, redfish, hake, and pollack are down 80 to 90 percent from their 1970 populations. The stocks of swordfish, salmon, and sharks are also severely depleted. The weakfish catch has declined 80 percent since 1980. Fishermen who are not much older than forty tell stories about the tremendous bounty of the sea in their youths, of swordfish playing off Montauk beach, of tuna blocking the breakwater at Provincetown. As recently as 1975 there was a near-coastal fishery for flounder off Cape Cod; hardly anyone catches a flounder there now. No one catches a halibut. More fishermen, more demand for seafood, and better technology for catching fish are the main reasons for these declines. The invention of loran, a navigational system that allows even the most unseafaring fisherman to know exactly where he is on the ocean at all times, has had a devastating effect on fish.
A whale sounds about a hundred yards off the starboard bow. Brooks says he doesn’t care too much for whales, because the whale-watching boats scare the tuna. “The fish are acting real skittish,” he says. “They’re out here, though. Timmy says he’s already seen three of them. Big ones. Slammers. Oh, there’s fish out here, all right. Hey. Shark.” He points toward the sickle-shaped fin slicing through the water.
Steve comes down and phones his tuna dealer, Robert Fitzpatrick, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The tuna dealer tells Steve he has heard that another tuna fisherman had a big trip off Provincetown yesterday. During bad-weather days, when they are sitting at the dock, the Weiners reminisce about big trips, like the one a few years ago when the water turned green and the giants were “like blueberries in milk,” as Brooks puts it. They stuck ten that day. Now Fitzpatrick reports that the other fisherman has stuck eight. Steve says, “Jesus. Eight.” He looks stuck himself.
I ask Brooks and Steve why they want to catch tuna so much. Steve says, “I love these fish. But I love to catch them. God I love to catch them. And I know you need some kind of catch limits because I’d catch all of them if I could.” He thinks for a minute. “Most guys I know don’t do this for the money. They tell you they do it for the money, but it’s not true.”
Brooks says, “The money is just a way of keeping score. It’s hard to explain what it is. It’s weird. A lot of things come together when you stick a fish.”
“I got tuna fish right under me!” Timmy Voorheis’s voice crackles over the loudspeaker, sounding very excited. Steve steams at full throttle toward the spot where the plane is lazily circling. Brooks races out over the harpoon stand, braces himself in the pulpit, and picks up the harpoon. The harpoon is a twelve-foot wooden pole with an iron shank in the end and a harpoon dart in the end of the shank. The dart is made of white bronze, according to the Weiners’ specifications, and is as sharp as a razor. An electrical cable connects the dart to a generator on board. Once a fish is stuck, the idea is to stun it quickly with a few jolts of electricity, then haul it up to the surface and kill it before it can come to its senses; otherwise the tuna wilt take off with the harpoon line–a giant can take out 600 feet of line in thirty seconds–and the men will have to haul it in, hand over hand.
Brooks spits on his hands and works the spit into the pole. He holds the harpoon on the right side of his body, left hand near the shank, right hand halfway down the shaft, knees flexed, weight on his back foot. A good harpoonist–a man who is good with the pole, as they say–can stick a fish that is swimming twenty feet under water. At that distance, he must calculate the refraction of the water and the speed of the fish and throw three or four feet ahead of where his eye tells him the fish is. The best shot is a brain shot, because the electricity will fry it with minimum trauma to the meat. You don’t want to throw at the tail, or you’ll “button” the fish–throw the harpoon right through it–and it won’t get any of the juice.
Steve eases back on the throttle. Timmy’s voice says, “Okay, they’re twenty lengths ahead of you. Two o’clock. Okay. Oh, they’re maahnsters. Okay, fifteen lengths now, one o’clock. Straight ahead five lengths. Four. Three. Okay, look for color now. Two lengths. One length. There he is!”
The giant tuna, seen from the perspective of the flying bridge, is a radiant yellow-and-blue shape, about ten feet under the water. The immense bulk of the trunk, contrasted with the long, slender dorsal fin, gives the fish a singular appearance. Giant tuna have astounded human beings for thousands of years. The oldest Punic coins are engraved with tuna. Aeschylus compares the slaughter of Persians by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis to the butchering of tuna. Aristotle believed that giant tuna got so fat because they fed on acorns from oak trees that grew on the bottom of the ocean. Pliny the Elder describes a confrontation between a school of giants and the fleet of Alexander the Great that caused Alexander to draw up his ships in battle formation.
Brooks, leaning over the pulpit, throws the harpoon at the tuna. The colors shiver and disappear. “Damn!” Brooks shouts into the water. “Goddamn!” Timmy groans over the loudspeaker. Brooks yells, “Did you see him look at me?” He is still staring down into the water. “He rolled over and looked me right in the eye!”
Back at the dock in Boothbay Harbor, Kevin and Brooks make themselves busy stowing gear. Two little boys come down from the pier and watch them in awe; white grooves show in Kevin’s brown face when he smiles at them. Young Chris Weiner gets out his rod and begins fishing for mackerel off the end of the Elizabeth Ames. Steve and I, up on the pier above, talk about tuna. With one eye on Chris, Steve says, “Look. Fishermen are honest. Go up and down the coast and ask about swordfish. Ask about groundfish. They’ll tell you, `Hey, these fish are in trouble.’ But all the guys I know are seeing as many bluefin as they ever saw. They’re maybe not catching them–but that’s another story. You’ve got to remember, these fish are smart. They live for a long time–thirty, forty years. They’ve been fished year after year–some of the fish we’re chasing have been fished for longer than I’ve been fishing–and they’ve caught on. I think it’s what happens with any wild animal. If you go into a forest where animals have never been hunted, you can get as many as you like, but after a while they’re going to get shy. Also, a lot of guys who are tuna fishing now were in some other fishery five years ago. They were attracted to bluefin by the high prices. They’re not catching any fish, because they don’t know how to do it. So they tell their wives or their girlfriends that the reason is there aren’t any fish anymore–to save face. It’s not true. There are plenty of fish.”
Marine-fishery management has always rested on the assumption that the number of fish in the sea is limitless. Other of our natural resources–timber, bison, land, wild horses–used to be managed the same way, and each time we neared the end of the resource the philosophy changed. Ocean management has not yet changed, though it has begun to adapt. The ocean is still free, as it has been forever. Traditionally, if you wanted to buy a factory trawler, hire a crew of a hundred men, and go out and catch tens of thousands of fish a day, you didn’t have to pay the government anything for using the resource–no rent, no special taxes. In fact, the government would help set you up in business with tax incentives and low-interest loans. The principle of free use is codified in the Magnuson Act, which was passed by Congress in 1976 and is up for renewal this year. The guidelines that were developed to interpret the act say, “Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing, while achieving the optimum yield.” “Optimum yield” is one of those government phrases that ire almost perfectly nonspecific. It is defined in the guidelines as “the maximum sustainable yield, as modified by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor.” In practice, Optimum yield has tended to work in the following way: the National Marine Fishery Service says that the yield of a particular species of fish is diminishing and quotas need to be set to recover the stock; commercial fishermen then say that for them, catching fewer fish constitutes a relevant economic factor, and the result is that no quotas are imposed.
From the perspective of fishery management, the basic problem with the Magnuson Act is that it places the short-term commercial interests of the fishermen above the biological interests of the fish. Setting catch quotas, charging royalties, banning certain technologies, and limiting the number of vessels in a fishery are, federal managers argue, within the spirit of optimum yield, because ending up with no fish is not in the economic interests of the fishermen either. Bur the federal government usually loses this argument, partly because the responsibility for most species of commercial fish in U.S. Atlantic waters belongs to the regional councils, which are state-based organizations, and the regional councils are heavily staffed by members of the fishing and seafood industries. There are a few exceptions, as with striped bass, where the federal government has been able to force the regional authorities to close or severely limit a fishery; most people agree that, as a result, the striped-bass population in the Atlantic has recovered dramatically in recent years.
Of the seventeen major fisheries in the world, nine are in severe decline, and four are commercially depleted. The collapse of the cod fishery on the Grand Bank, which is mostly in Canadian waters, has put more than 30,000 fishery employees out of work. Brian Tobin, Canada’s minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said in a speech at the United Nations in March, “This is an ecological disaster. It is also a societal calamity…. What do you do if your life, your family, and your community are all linked to the fishery, but there are no fish … no fish today and maybe no fish ever again unless the little that remains is protected.” The fishery on the Georges Bank, which has sustained generations of New Englanders going back to the Pilgrims, will be closed to haddock fishing this year, and the cod and flounder populations are so severely overfished that a group of New England congressmen asked for emergency disaster relief for fishermen and the Clinton Administration later proposed a $30 million relief package. Dr. Carl Safina, a marine ecologist with the Audubon Society, says, “The fundamental importance of the closing of the fisheries on Georges Bank and Grand Bank is that the authorities are admitting, de facto, that these natural resources, which were so rich that they propelled the economic development of this part of the continent for two centuries, are now commercially extinct.”
“Dad, I got one!”
Chris has a mackerel on the line. He wants his dad to come down and take the hook out, but Steve thinks it would be good for Chris to overcome his squeamishness about fish. The two little boys who were watching Kevin are now watching Chris, So the pressure is on. “Go ahead!” Steve calls out. “You can do it, Chris!”
“Dad, help me! Dad, he’s bleeding!”
Another reason why fishery management is difficult is that anyone who objects to quotas can argue that the people who want to impose them don’t know how to count fish. “The thing about these government guys is they don’t go out on the water,” Steve tells me. “All their statistics are based on catches. As far as they’re concerned, if you don’t catch the fish they don’t exist.” Counting fish is something between an art and a science, combining theory, models, and guesswork. In the United States, the reigning technique of fish counting is virtual-population analysis, in which you take the number of fish caught, try to figure Out how old those fish are, compare the catch with the catches of other years, factor in the natural mortality rate and various trend indicators, and infer from the calculations the size of the year class. The greatest obstacle to accurate fish Counting is that the size of year classes can change dramatically from year to year for environmental reasons that have nothing to do with fishing and are not very well understood. Destruction of habitat and degradation of spawning grounds certainly play roles as important as overfishing. Most people believe that although virtual-population analysis may not give you the right numbers, it gives you the right trend. But if you don’t want to believe any of the statistics there are good reasons not to.
Finally, even if you do manage to set a quota, you have to allocate it among all the different kinds of fishermen, and each group fights hard for all the fish it can get. The current quota for tuna is 1,250 metric tons, divided among harpooners, hand-liners, rod-and-reelers, and purse seiners, and there are arcane formulas to determine how much each group should get. A major complaint of the harpooners and hand-liners is that the five Atlantic purse-seine boats get some 25 percent of the tuna allocation, because of a charter they obtained from the federal government in the 1960s. But the most heated allocation arguments of all are between the people who fish for pleasure and the people who fish for work.
Recreational tuna fishermen are mainly chatter-boat captains and the fishing parties who hire them during the summer for a day of sport on the water. The recreational fishermen argue that whereas there are a lot more of them than commercial tuna fishermen, the commercial fishermen have 82 percent of the bluefin allocation. The commercial fishermen argue that the recreational fishermen are just having fun, whereas they are practicing a trade their fathers and grandfathers pursued. A leading spokesman for the commercial fishermen’s interests is Jerry Abrams, who owns the Fresh Water Fish Company, opposite Pier Four in Boston, and who told me, “An allocation struggle is going on here on the backs of the commercial fishermen, on behalf of a group of elite recreationalists, people who were born with a spoon in their mouths, a spoon full of oil, who go out on their Bendel Davis boats, with their Murray fighting chairs, who are more interested in the strike rate off Bimini than in the fish.”
As Abrams sees it, now that the resource is valuable, the government wants to take it away. “The government has to say there’s a problem in the fishery, because if there isn’t a problem the government doesn’t belong there,” he says. I ask, “But what if the government is right?” “What I am saying is that we who rely on the resource to earn a living are the people who need to be most concerned about conservation, and if it is true that the only way to save it is not to fish for a few years, then we won’t fish. But before we accept that, we are going to have to accept that the government’s stock assessment is accurate.”
The Elizabeth Ames is equipped with a color sonar and a depth finder, and other sophisticated electronics for finding tuna. The tuna carry small particles of magnetite in their brains that allow them to navigate using the earth’s magnetic field. The Weiners use Comsat satellite infrared photos of sea-surface temperature to figure out where the tuna might be. Tuna have a system of lateral lines in their skin that is exquisitely sensitive to changes in water pressure, and they have binocular vision and excellent hearing. On either side of the anterior base of the tuna’s caudal fin is a keel that creates turbulence and thus lowers the drag on the tail fin, a feature we have borrowed in the design of torpedoes, although a tuna is faster than any torpedo.
The spot Steve has chosen today is two loran coordinates at which the Weiners have caught fish before. It is about ten miles offshore, and getting there takes an hour. Steve, in the tuna tower, reduces the speed and begins steering the boat in big, slow circles. The plane drones far away. A light breeze soughs through the rigging in the tuna tower. Shapes appear and disappear in the brightness. The heat and the light, the monotony of driving aimlessly around on the ocean, and the utter emptiness are hypnotic. The Ames comes into a school of porpoises. In twos and threes, they swim beside the bow. Some do daredevil runs in front of the boat, and some come soaring up from the depths, leap ten feet into the air, arc gracefully, and disappear into the depths again. Suddenly, Timmy’s voice comes over the loudspeaker again: “I got tuna right under me now, in a school of pogies. Oh, they’re just bustin’ water.”
Steve heads at full speed for the airplane. Brooks goes out into the pulpit and picks up the harpoon. Ahead, the water is boiling with the pogies, leaping, trying to escape the tuna. Occasionally, the massive gleaming bulk of a giant tuna breaks the water. Just as the boat comes into the boiling water, a cloud crosses the sun, and the fish disappear as though they were a mirage. Ten minutes pass. Then Timmy finds them again. This time, as the boat enters the boil the sun comes out from behind a cloud, and Brooks says, “Maybe God is on our side.”
Timmy is saying, “Three lengths, twelve o’clock. Two lengths, look for color now. Okay, you’re right on them.” Brooks throws the harpoon. The harpoon enters the water and seems to stick inside it, as if it had struck a submerged block of ice. “Hit it!” Brooks screams, and he thrusts his arm in the air. There is a whipsawing screech and a crack: the sound of the electricity going off. Down in the water, something buckles at a weird angle. “Hit it!” Brooks screams again, and the electricity cracks again and the shape goes down and under the boat.
Kevin and Steve come down the ratlines at amazing speed. All three men take hold of the line and walk with it toward the rear of the boat. Brooks is in a frenzy. Rage is boiling out of him. “You fucking whore!” he screams twice down into the water in the direction of the fish. The men heave on the rope, hurrying to get the fish to the surface before the effects of the electricity wear off.
Far down in the water, the colors of the fish begin to show. A tuna’s colors are said to glow more brightly when the fish is excited or afraid. The colors seem to materialize out of the blue, as though the blue in the water were coalescing into a fish. The finlets are canary yellow, and there are lozenges of violet on the sides, indigo on the top, and delicate yellow mottling in between. The bulk of the fish looms up, mouth gaping, tail pumping, until, finally, the huge dumb head breaks the water, shaking from side to side, its wild, terrified eyes staring at the Weiners.
Brooks lets go of the line, runs into the wheelhouse, and reappears with a chrome pistol. He leans over the side of the boat and shoots the fish three times in the head. Three bright red circles leap from the gleaming skin, and the eyes go dull. Immediately, the colors begin to fade, like coals. The men quickly get the transom open and pull the tuna into the boat. It is about ten feet long and has a pot belly–a monstrously oversized fish. Brooks is already selling. “He’s a good six hundred. He’s fat. Six fifty. He’s a hell of a fish.” Kevin stabs the fish in the side, and there is a hiss of air followed by a gush of blood. The blood is the same color as human blood, and it steams. Chris’s squeamishness has vanished. “Smell the blood? Smell the blood?” he keeps asking me. Soon blood is everywhere on the deck, and shit, and also milt, shed by the fish in a dying desire to reproduce. Kevin works quickly to gut the fish and get it into the brine tank before the heat in its core can begin to cook the flesh. With a handsaw he cuts part of the head off, and then he pushes a long wire down the spinal column of the fish, to destroy the nerves, so that the fish won’t jerk involuntarily and break someone’s leg. During this operation, the fish flops wildly around, then lies still. Kevin saws the rest of the head off, crawls into the body cavity up to his shoulders, and rips out the guts. The boot-shaped stomach is stuffed with whole pogies. The heart is the size of a football. Kevin cuts out the meat behind the eyes–the head steaks–and puts them aside; they are his prize.
It is much more difficult to catch the last bluefin tuna than it is to poison the last condor or to shoot the last tiger. Our concept of an endangered species, based as it is on the threat of biological extinction, doesn’t apply very well to fish like bluefin tuna, which lay millions of eggs a year. With fish, one is talking about commercial extinction–about overfishing the population to the point where it crashes, leaving a permanent remnant population that can he fished only recreationally, in the way that people hunt elk and deer. That will have a ripple effect all the way down the food chain, and if the fish is at the top of the food chain, as the giant bluefin tuna is, the effect could he profound.
Marine conservationists have discovered that the plight of cod, haddock, and flounder is harder to sell to people who care about wildlife than the plight of dolphins and whales. “My thing is, the standard rap I give is, fish are wildlife, too,” says Cart Safina of the Audubon Society. Safina is a small man in his late thirties whose hair is much shorter than it was when he was a drummer in jazz and rock bands. “When you say bluefin tuna to most people, they think you’re talking about dolphin. Why is the tuna/dolphin problem only a dolphin problem? Our humanitarianism dissipates the further we get from our phylum.”
In 1989, Safina persuaded his superiors at Audubon to establish the Living Oceans Program, that organization’s first major entry into marine-fishery management, with himself as director. Right away, Safina says, “I began looking for a charismatic fish, a mascot, something people could relate to. I thought about using a shark, because sharks are top carnivores, like we are, so people can relate to them, but it would have taken a year to put the data together. Also, sharks aren’t cuddly. The giant bluefin tuna seemed like the best choice, because it is the fastest, strongest, largest bony fish in the ocean, and if any fish was going to appear to be warm and fuzzy, a la Charlie Tuna, it’s the giant bluefin. Also, I have a deep personal acquaintance with this fish. My father used to take me tuna fishing, and my feelings about this fish are tied up with that.”
The biological superlatives of the living animal, on the one hand, and the amount of money it is worth dead, on the other, have made the giant bluefin “the ultimate political fish,” in the words of Mike Sutton, of the World Wildlife Fund. World Wildlife and Audubon were mainly responsible for the proposal to list giant bluefin on Appendix 1 at the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in 1992. (African elephants, pandas, and humpback whales are some of the animals on Appendix 1.) The proposal provoked widespread protest in Japan, where it was viewed as an attempt by the West to interfere with Japanese culture. The possibility of a tuna, the quintessential commercial fish, being declared an endangered species deeply alarmed the fishing industry here. The proposal failed, but as a political maneuver it was a success, because it put giant tuna on the same footing as “the charismatic megafauna of the conservation movement, in Safina’s words. Safina hopes the United States will try to list bluefin tuna on Appendix 2 at this year’s CITES meeting, in Florida in November.
Safina’s prominent associations with bluefin politics have made it harder for him to use his boat. Last summer, he told me, a tuna fisherman recognized him in Montauk, where he keeps his boat, and began screaming and coming after him, until a few other fishermen restrained the man.
George Coffin, a blond-bearded man wearing tinted glasses, met the Weiners’ giant in Boothbay. He was driving a delivery truck with a hill of ice cubes in the back. Sprawled on the ice, the giant went to Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, where it spent the night in a brine tank. The next morning, it traveled to the headquarters of the Weiners’ fish dealer, Robert Fitzpatrick, in Gloucester. Now, late in the afternoon, the giant is submerged in another brine tank, at the back of Wright’s Fish Company, next to a shack that is the outpost of Maguro America, Inc., Fitzpatrick’s company. Its skin is dark blue and purple, like a bruise, and it gleams in the overhead lights. The flesh where the head had been attached has turned white.
Fitzpatrick offers to sell giants on consignment for his clients: he gets the tuna from the boat to Tokyo, for which he charges a commission; the fisherman takes the risk at the auction and stands to earn most of the profit. “In this business it’s not just risk, it’s market share,” Fitzpatrick says. “You got to be able to handle eight, ten giants at once, and a small dealer like me can’t gamble that kind of money.” Two or three times during the season, when he feels lucky, Fitzpatrick will buy a giant outright from a fisherman and take a chance at the auction. “Hey,” he says, tossing a couple of imaginary dice. “It’s all a crapshoot.”
The reason dealing giant tuna is a crapshoot is that no one in this country really knows what the Japanese are going to think of any particular fish. On an average day there will be a giant that sells for $30,000 and a giant that sells for $3,000, and to the untutored eye these two fish will look exactly alike. Fitzpatrick has been to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market to study the masters at work, and he routinely carries a sashibo, which is a tuna core-sampler, stuffed into his boot. Sometimes he slips into a Japanese accent when he is talking about tuna. But even he is humble before the Japanese mystery of the perfect giant tuna.
“Luster is important,” he says, getting up from his desk and going out to the brine tank. “You’ve got to have a living color in the fish, not a dead color; it has to look as if there were life inside the tissue. Oil, fat, feel, shape, and taste are all a part of it. If you’re good, you can taste the way the fish died. If it fought for a long time on a line, the meat will have a burned taste, from lactic-acid buildup in the muscles, which the Japanese call yake. Some guys say you can taste how afraid the fish was when it died. If the fisherman used an electric harpoon sometimes you find that the meat is so firm on the first day that you can’t get your core-sampler into it. The more juice the fishermen gave the fish, the harder it is. A second day in the tank can help an electric fish a lot.” An electric harpoon may also explode the spine or snap bones in convulsions, damaging meat inside the fish, where you can’t see it. “Not even the Japanese always know what’s going on with an electric fish,” he says.
Frequently, Fitzpatrick is in the delicate position of having to tell a fisherman that his giant isn’t good enough to go to Japan. That means that it will probably sell here for two or three dollars a pound, instead of ten or twenty. “My fishermen all go, `How is he?'” Fitzpatrick clasps his hands together and scrunches up his face beseechingly, like a man asking his doctor about his ailing mother. “I go, `Well, he’s a domestic fish. He’s big, you did a nice job, but he’s domestic.’ They go, `When’s he going to Japan?’ I go, `No, you don’t understand. He’s not going to Japan.’ They go, `Oh, no!'”
Fitzpatrick examines a tail steak cut from the Weiners’ giant. “Nice color. Decent fat. The fat dispersal could be better.” He points out that the fat is concentrated in pouches under the skin, instead of being spread through the flesh. “Still, good shape.” He holds his hands suggestively in front of his belly. “I like his chances.” Going to the other end of the floor, Fitzpatrick fetches a pine coffin. He swaddles the bottom of it with a foil-lined space blanket. Then he ties a rope around the tail of the giant and, using a forklift, carefully lifts it out of the brine tank and nestles it into the coffin. He packs ice around its sides, “so he’ll be comfy for the ride.” He spreads another space blanket over the top of the fish, saying, “The Japs love this high-tech stuff.” He picks up the lid of the coffin–“Sayonara, my friend”–and nails it down over the tuna.
Every day, 500 species of marine life–blowfish, live flounder, dried sardines, Chilean salmon, Alaskan pollack, Thai shrimp, sea bream–are brought into Tsukiji Market, auctioned, removed to the vast warren of middlemen’s stalls, and resold to restaurants and retail stores around Tokyo. Tsukiji is almost sixty years old, which is old for Tokyo, and it is impossibly cramped, amazingly clean, paved with mismatched cobblestones, roofed with a patchwork of corrugated metal and fiberglass, and open at the sides. The tuna auction takes place at five-thirty in the morning in the back of the market, next to the Sumida River. Here, around midnight, some seventy-two hours after they caught it, the Weiners’ giant arrives by truck. Tuna coffins from all over the world are lying around, and piles of sodden space blankets. Employees of the market uncrate the fish and heave it up onto an ancient-looking scale. Its weight–180 kilos, or about 400 pounds–is written on a slip of paper, and the paper is stuck to the fish. An old man with a pot of red paint draws Japanese characters on the side of the fish, identifying it as Boston bluefin, and he draws a red circle around the harpoon scar. The men lift the tuna onto a barrow, wheel it across the floor, and put it on a pallet with other tuna being sold through the Tohto Suisan auction house, which is one of seven auction houses operating in the market.
Giant tuna from Australia, Chile, Spain, and Hawaii are among the tuna’s neighbors. The biggest giants are at the front of each group, with tuna in descending order of size fanning out behind. The tuna buyers, neatly dressed in blue uniforms, black boots, and blue caps, and each carrying a flashlight, a pad, a pencil, and a meat hook down in his boot, move between the ranks of tuna. They pick up a tail steak, feel it, shine a flashlight on it, peer into the body cavity, roll a piece of core sample into a marble, throw it down, make a note on a pad, and walk on to the next tuna.
At five-thirty, the tuna auctioneer begins rocking softly on a rickety dais and crying numbers in a strange rhythm. Tuna buyers are crowded onto little bleachers fifteen feet away, facing the auctioneer and making sharp cries and peculiar hand gestures: an outstretched palm means 5,000 yen per kilo; a waggled palm is 5,500, a thumb stuck up is 6,000. The Weiners’ fish is not a success. It sells for 4,500 yen a kilo, or $19.39 a pound–about $7,500 total. A month later, the Weiners will get $32,000 for a giant about the same size. The new owners of the tuna wheel it into the maze of stalls where the middlemen work. The tuna passes live eels swimming in buckets, dried squid, abalone, Japanese lobsters, crabs crawling in sawdust. Men are crying hoarsely to one another, and rubber boots squelch on wet pavement.
At the new owner’s stall, a worker takes a break from filleting live eels and helps lift the giant onto a chrome-plated operating table. One man begins wiping it down, washing it off, and wiping it down some more. Another man carefully carves out the anus. The head butcher, who is holding an extremely large knife and has various other knives and saws beside him, makes a long slit down the backbone, neatly divides that into six sections–high, middle, and low toro, and high, middle, and low chai, or back. Another man trims discolored meat from around the sides, continually wiping the meat, buffing it to a low gloss, and arranges the cuts in a large refrigerated display case under bright lights. Other cuts are painstakingly trussed up into handsome one- and two-kilo packages for regular customers. In two hours of hard work, the Weiners’ giant has been rendered into burgundy-colored, terrifically appetizing blocks of money, waiting for sushi-bar owners and supermarket buyers and department-store food-counter managers to come and carry away pieces to points all over Tokyo.
Copyright © John Seabrook 2003. All rights reserved