Following National Geographic Channel’s announcement of its upcoming TV show, “Wicked Tuna,” and my consequent slam, I received a phone call inviting me to Nat Geo headquarters. Our discussion seemed a big improvement over their press release. Yes, really.
As announced, this show will feature commercial fishing for bluefin tuna. With or without the cameras, those boats kill fish. And these fish are spectacular. They’re half-ton warm-blooded animals capable of swimming at highway speeds and crossing oceans.
The global bluefin tuna enterprise is perhaps the most bizarre — certainly the most controversial — fishery in the world. They are classified “endangered” by the global union of conservation scientists; their problem arises with sushi dealers in Japan who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for one fish. The insane prices stimulate intense overfishing; and — like Mitt Romney’s tax rate — it’s all perfectly legal.
Well, not perfectly. Much of the fishing is done with enormous nets and twenty-five mile “long-lines” dangling hundreds of baited hooks (they also hook endangered turtles and endangered albatrosses). A lot of bluefin tuna fishing is illegal. Bluefin catches greatly exceed the legal limit in the eastern Atlantic, Mediterranean, and southwest Pacific, and even the legal limit is far above what scientists recommend, all because of the corrupting influence of those insane prices.
In the U.S. and Canada, boats fish under probably the tightest and best-policed limits in the world. In one sector of the fishery, people use rods-and-reels (big ones), and it’s possible for those smaller-scale rod-and-reelers to turn a profit while killing relatively few fish per boat (there are a lot of those boats, and it adds up, but let’s move on).
The Nat Geo show will focus on several of those boats from Gloucester, Massachusetts. In Gloucester, everything about fishing is tense with the brutalizing baggage of centuries of deadly weather, generations of fish depletion, and recently, heavy regulations. For many who fish for a living, the high-stakes tension that wires their lives is the grind between the risk of putting themselves out of business through overfishing (there’s been a lot of that), or getting put out of business by government regulations designed to let the fish populations breathe long enough to recover. Those regulations are probably the best hope for the next generation, a fact that does not interest people expecting mortgage payments this month.
Back to our meeting. I particularly appreciated being able to directly address Nat Geo’s CEO for TV, David Lyle, because, as he said by way of introduction, “When it comes to National Geographic Television, I’m the guy.” Also present: Sr. VP of communications Chris Albert, Nat Geo Ocean Initiative director Miguel Jorge; research and conservation VP John Francis; and Executive VP for missions, Terry Garcia, who’d extended the invitation. (A few years back, Francis, Garcia and I memorably traveled to the Arctic to better understand climate warming, melting ice, and polar bears.)
I’d been asked to “come with an open mind,” and I did. Not empty; my mind is filled with memories of catching bluefin tuna off Long Island when I was younger, tagging the giant fish that swarmed Cape Hatteras in the late 1990s, and the bruising international conservation battles I lived through and described in Song for the Blue Ocean and other writing.
Mr. Lyle made an early point of insisting the show will portray, not glorify, the men and women in the fishery. OK; it’s semantic difference that didn’t seem worth arguing so we moved along to the narrative difficulties: lingering on conservation issues (you lose much of your potential audience), and conveying the intricate policy details governing international fishing bureaucracy (you lose your mind). Because I’m hosting an upcoming series called Saving the Ocean, I know that those constraints are real, especially in the profit-or-perish world of cable (that’s why we’re on PBS.)
We talked about things fishermen think they know, things scientists know they think, and the difficulties of discerning (not to mention filming) a reality swimming somewhere in the murky middle. A lot of boat captains complain about having to travel farther, the competition for a limited pool of allotted fish, and other boats taking too much of the food (such as herring) needed by creatures like whales. And tuna. The issues are real.
I think we all did a pretty good job of listening. That might not be as exciting as people yelling, but there are enough yelling people. So talking and listening was good.
What I heard was: National Geographic is committed to the big picture. Conservation concerns will be part of the project. That’s their promise so let’s take them at their word. But can they weave it all it into a compelling show that will make viewers take their fingers off their remotes? That’s a taller order. The website they’re building for the series may turn out to be the better vehicle for the deeper story, and a wide range of opinion — which there will be.
So we’ll see. But after getting such a bad sense from their initial announcement, it was good to have my expectations raised.