In something of a “man bites dog” story, NMFS last week increased by 40 tons the bluefin tuna quota for harpoon tuna fishermen. The harpoon fleet, which comprises vessels that fish exclusively by means of harpoon, is relatively small  perhaps a few dozen boats  so the increase could potentially go a long way.

Emphasis on “potentially.” I have long compared tuna fishing with deer hunting, in that far more vessels chase bluefin than land them. (And as in deer hunting, most guys are back at it next season, whether they’ve been successful or not.)

Sonny McIntyre poised in the pulpit, harpoon in hand and bluefin in sight.This is doubly so in the harpoon fishery, which is as addictive to many of its practitioners as it is unlikely to be remunerative. In order to face the prospect of going to market, a bluefin must first rise to the surface of ocean – just where is almost impossible to know. It must then be seen, which presumes there’s someone afloat within range to see it, and if observed it must then be “ironed” with a pole thrown from a vessel’s pulpit, a slim platform that in many cases extends further forward of the boat’s center of gravity than the boat is long.

Most bluefin vessels have a daily catch limit. The harpoon fleet’s seasonal quota recognizes that “stick boats” can only do business under ideal sea conditions.

Even so, the harpooner’s lot is analogous to that of most any other fisherman. The fish are elusive, the weather is uncertain, the days are long, and the business model is dubious.

But it’s bucolic and artisanal (fuel bills notwithstanding) and there’s no fishery quite like it. In National Fisherman’s September cover story fisherman/author Corky Decker, who got his start in Maine before heading first to Alaska and then to the western tropical Pacific, takes us back to where tuna harpooning began, and to the family who propelled it to prominence off northern New England.

For more photos from the September cover story, check out the Sorting Table.

A collection of stories from guest authors.

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