July 10, 2011
After a leisurely breakfast, we began looking for fish. Our boat’s captain and owner is Larry Sears. He’s also the vice-president of the swordfish harpooner’s quota association. This association decides, based on history, how many fish each boat will get to catch for the season. This eliminates a lot of the competition between boats, letting them fish in the safest weather since they have the whole season to catch their allotment. Captain Larry’s crew consists of the lanky Shawn Smith and the amiable Hoss Atwood. Hoss’s dimensions can understatedly be termed rotund, and throughout the trip, with him doing the cooking, we would constantly be treated to his solicitous Hosspitality and his Hosssome home-cooked meals.
Swordfish usually don’t show at the surface until the water has warmed a bit, so, not early morning. When it was time, Hoss and Shawn 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).
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 and he struck it. The “dart” detached from the harpoon shaft as it’s designed to do, and the fish then took off attached to roughly 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 fishery 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.
Less than half an hour later, another shout. Larry struck the fish, but he didn’t think the dart went deep enough to hold.
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.
In the afternoon we picked up the gear. Sure enough, the second fish had pulled free of its dart and was gone. On deck, the other two looked enormous. And, they were. The larger weighed a good 300 pounds.
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 bump into each other during the night!