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Where Are The Fish?

Author and fisherman Matt Rigney brings home a tale of adventure, loss and, somehow, hope.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012
Matt Rigney Photo
An 1,100-pound black marlin takes flight

The book on my bedside table right now is about fishing, the debut non-fiction work of Matt Rigney, a Guilford, Conn. native who lives in Whately. In Pursuit of Giants: One Man's Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish is a very important book; for anyone who cares about the sea, who cares about the planet and the future generations who will inherit it, who wonders at the mysterious power of the little remaining wilderness humankind has yet to rape and pillage, Rigney's book is a must-read.

That goes double for anyone who regularly dines at sushi bars or loads the summer grill with swordfish and tuna steaks.

As the book hits stores this month, it is not unlikely that it will fall into the hands of a lot of recreational fishing enthusiasts like me. And they won't be disappointed. In Pursuit of Giants is, in every sense, a great fishing book, an adventure that leads the narrator into some of the most remote and hostile places on earth, chasing huge but increasingly endangered game fish that have animated the dreams of sport fishermen for more than a century. The world Rigney describes is a sensuous one, a world of visual splendor and relentless wind and waves, a world populated by rugged, rough-talking men whose passions for the sea and for great fish vastly outweigh any apparent concern for comfort and safety.

But Rigney's book is much more than a collection of fishing tales. It is, in fact, a scathing indictment of fishing, particularly commercial fishing, as it is practiced around the world. His search for "great fish"—"that group possessed of great strength and speed and excluding sharks and rays"—provides not just a view of dwindling or decimated stocks of billfish (blue and black marlin, sailfish, and striped marlin), tuna (yellowfin, bigeye and the giant bluefin) and swordfish, but of the broader impact of commercial fishing and policies that treat the ocean only as a resource to be managed for maximum yield.

By means of close, first-hand reporting, Rigney examines the forces driving the various segments of the commercial fleet, from barely-surviving independent fishermen to state-of-the-art (and often heavily subsidized) mega-trawlers and longliners scooping life from the ocean with indiscriminate ferocity.

In long hours spent at sea with commercial and recreational fisherman and with activists from Greenpeace, in an extended visit to the world's largest fish market in Tokyo and a rare tour of a pioneering tuna farming operation in Australia, Rigney describes comprehensively a system that most people only see in part, whether from the back of a charter boat chasing marlin in Cabo San Lucas or buying tuna in a market in Boston. With the conviction of an activist and the integrity of a journalist seeking objective truth, he examines the myriad problems caused by industrial fishing, none more gruesome and unsustainable than the accepted practice of killing and dumping bycatch—the undesired species, be they turtles, dolphins, whales, sharks or other animals, caught "by accident" in nets or on some of the millions of baited hooks set out by longliners each year.

In Pursuit of Giants connects the dots between reports of dangerously depleted reserves coming from important fisheries around the world—in some case, as with the northern bluefin tuna, so depleted that the damage may be irreversible—and the methods used to harvest fish. In Mexico, Nova Scotia, Japan and the Mediterranean, he finds oceans once teeming with great fish now ravaged by fleets of longliners, vessels that drag a central line as long as 15 miles and attached to thousands of subsidiary lines with baited hooks. The method not only yields more caught "target" fish than is possible with a single hook or harpoon, it also often results in a bycatch that represents 60 to 80 percent of a total catch. The use of driftnets, known as "walls of death," and purse seiners, which entangle their quarry in netting, are equally common, effective and indiscriminate means of killing fish.

Rigney found such deadly methods being used even in ostensibly protected waters, such as the Sea of Cortez. There, in fact, the Mexican government allows, according to Rigney's reporting, "as many as 243 medium longline vessels" to fish with as much as "10,185 miles of line, with an estimated 218,000 hooks" on any given day. "The daily impact of even a single medium longliner is the equivalent of 250 sportfishing yachts fishing twenty-four hours a day," Rigney writes.

Throughout the book Rigney exhibits a sympathy for and allegiance with fishermen, but that doesn't stop him from confronting the inevitable fact: the human race now stands at the very brink of exhausting what it once saw as inexhaustible. In Pursuit of Giants ultimately makes a forceful case for an out-and-out moratorium on certain kinds of fishing in order to allow the ocean's incredible fecundity to begin to overcome the devastation of the last 40 years in particular.

*

I asked Rigney during a recent interview about the possible difficulties he faces in getting his book to an audience as wide as it deserves. Was he worried that packaging In Pursuit of Giants as an adventure story would limit its reach and keep political and environmental activists away?

"There have been a number of really good books written by journalists and written by scientists about what's happening in the ocean, but none of them took the format of bringing the reader out there to show them the ocean they don't know, the ocean they can't see from shore," Rigney said. "I know why I love the sea. It's not because it's a food source. It's not because I know the science behind it, necessarily. It's because it's beautiful and it's mysterious and it's powerful."

In the book, Rigney describes the progression of his own love affair with the ocean, which began on Long Island Sound where he was born and grew stronger through his teens, after his parents bought a place on Goose Rocks Beach in southern Maine. With his brothers he would fish from a rowboat.

"[I] would stare out beyond the wave tops as far as I could see," he recalls, "sensing the power, the distance, the utter forsakenness of the open ocean. And while it frightened me, I felt, even then, the need for it."

Thankfully, Rigney has ample humility to see his own love for the ocean as neither a unique nor a private matter. "I was convinced that if people could come out with me on the boat and see what I saw," Rigney told me, "they would feel some of the outrage I felt and believe there was more we could do to reverse the situation. That was the premise of the book."

The question that he hears and expects to hear, particularly from non-fishing conservationists, is—based on what he saw and the outrage that he felt—how can he still fish?

"It's a good question," Rigney said, clearly not entirely satisfied with what he has to offer. "All I can say is, I'd never be fighting for these creatures if I hadn't fished."

*

We speak of fishing, not catching, for a reason. As Rigney explains with authority in his book, anglers must endure hours upon hours when nothing is biting and still remain focused on the task at hand. It is only by getting into the right places and putting in the time that a fisherman can hope to hook a big fish. Along the way, of course, there is much else to see and experience. But in the end, for Rigney and for many other anglers, it is the fish itself that fires the imagination and keeps us coming back for more.

I'd only spoken to Rigney for half an hour before I saw the nature of his relationship to great fish. We were talking about fishing for marlin off the coast of Australia. Rigney, who'd been friendly but fairly reserved up to that point, suddenly grabbed my copy of his book, turned to the center collection of photographs and pointed to a black and white image of an enormous 1,100-pound, 12-foot black marlin in full flight.

"This thing was sick. Tom, this thing was..." Rigney said, leaning forward with a sudden burst of unbridled enthusiasm. "I've never seen an animal do anything like what that fish did. ... That fish flew over 60 feet, at least 15 feet in the air, as if to say, 'You not taking me today.'"

The account of this particular fish is, in many ways, the emotional center of Rigney's book:

"In my mind, this is how I will always see her: rising out of the windy sea, fins spread, mouth open, tail beating, head wagging side to side as she arcs up, whole body undulating as she hits the apex of her jump—glorious, supreme, the queen of the ocean, shining in the absolute divine power of Nature.

"And it is at that moment that I feel my own soul open its wings, throw itself against its bony cage and escape out of me in a rush to fly after that fish. Part of me, I know, will remain out there off Ribbon Reef Number 10 until the end of my days.

"For there, before my eyes, was the fish I had dreamed of since I was a boy, coming out of the sea like a flying horse—free, resplendent, dreamlike, untouchable."

I won't spoil the story: maybe that fish gets caught, maybe it gets away. Suffice it to say, very few of the fish Rigney writes about in his book get away. That said, it is clear that at least a part of Rigney is always rooting for the fish.

"I'm super-conscious that this is a creature," Rigney said, referring to the marlin he witnessed off Ribbon Reef Number 10. As a fisherman, he said, he has to balance his desire to catch and touch such creatures with his responsibility to protect them. As he paused to take a sip of water, I saw sadness in his eyes and I thought of a passage in his book:

"In our behavior toward Nature, we have mistaken 'dominion' for 'free rein.' But our ability to dominate the life forms of this planet does not release us from responsibility; rather, it entrusts us with the obligation to act wisely in stewardship of the natural world."

*

As I read In Pursuit of Giants now for a second time, I am still overwhelmed with anger, choked with bile that rises in reaction to the corruption and greed that lie at the heart of the problem.

In the course of his travels, Rigney writes, "a consistent pattern emerged: the pattern of corporate/government collusion to exploit resources without regard to science or strict adherence to the precautionary principle." The details may have differed from place to place, "but the overall pattern is one of continuing high-impact exploitation, carried out by corporate industrial fleets, sanctioned by governments, in the face of evident ruin."

Yet after witnessing merciless fishing practices and the resulting death and destruction of important fisheries, Rigney managed to write a book that isn't consumed by anger and frustration. Rigney is unflinching in his reporting, but he never appears full of rage.

"I have to give total credit to my editor," he said when I asked about his apparent restraint, "because I was pissed and the first draft was just full of it. My editor said, 'We've just got to cut it.'" Rigney agreed and began the rewrite.

"It was really hard being in this," he continued. He told a story about the harpooners in Nova Scotia he met and ultimately befriended. Practicing a method of hunting swordfish that, despite its surface savagery, is also sustainable—"One man. One fish. One arrow."—the crew of the Brittany & Brothers have seen their livelihood and their way of life nearly extinguished by Canada's corporate fishing policies and practices.

Among the techniques destroying the waters in which Saul Newell, his father Gabby Newell and harpooner Dwaine d'Eon chase swordfish is bottom dragging for scallops. "The scallop dredge," Rigney writes, "is yet another industrialized method of bulldozing the ocean floor," taking "a thin layer of soft sponges, seaweeds, small soft and hard corals, and whole gardens of creatures" and leaving behind "a wasteland of sand, rock, or mud."

"My friends in Nova Scotia said, 'What we really ought to do is take a bunch of pickup trucks and a bottom-dragging gear set and rake it over the lawns of the Capitol building, and then people would understand what this crap does to the bottom.'" Rigney admitted that he got caught up in his friends' passion: "I said, 'You guys have nothing to lose. You should do it.'"

I prod Rigney to critique (without regard to political correctness, I hope) the modern Japanese social, economic and political culture for its continuing support of untenable fishing policies, for that single nation's negative impact on the world's oceans—an impact vastly disproportionate to Japan's size. Rigney declined to go beyond his reportage.

"The question of the Japanese is really the fact that they drive the world consumption of bluefin tuna—80 percent of the bluefin tuna goes to them. That's like asking Americans to get off cheeseburgers," he said. He seemed to try to balance my expressed revulsion for Japan's willful and arrogant ways with his own positive experiences with Japanese fishermen in Oma, 350 miles north of Tokyo .

"They were absolutely concerned, outraged, just like the guys in Nova Scotia, that their government was in collusion with Mitsubishi Corporation and others to exploit the sea to maximum capacity," he said. "That's corruption. And that's the same everywhere I went."

The only Japanese cultural predisposition Rigney has license to characterize, he said, is based on his conversations with his translator, Wakao Hanaoka, an employee of Greenpeace Japan. He asked Hanaoka specifically about the Japanese public's complacency and whether they will get engaged, fight back, confront the government. "Hanaoka said, 'It's not really part of our culture to do that. People are not confrontational. They think they must trust the government to do the honorable and responsible thing.' So their government isn't held accountable. I don't think there's a public understanding of the issue to the extent that they would feel outrage and like they were responsible for taking action. It's a head-in-the-sand thing."

In light of such seemingly irreversible public ignorance and apathy, how does he stay hopeful?

"I don't see an alternative. That's the fighting alternative, to say, I will never buy the cynicism that says, 'It's done, there's no answer.' I'm not willing to fucking concede that!"

Rigney's call to arms reminded me of a conversation with Saul Newell in Nova Scotia that he describes in the book. He asks Saul, "How do you stay sane?" Saul answers: "Who says we've stayed sane? Ye'r lookin' at the few survivors out here."

Saul then tells Rigney "stories about life on Cape Sable, stories of uncles and neighbors who made an honest living when there were still plenty of fish, and then how it started to get complicated when the fish began to disappear. Saul and these 30 or 40 boats out here are among the last to keep the tradition of swordfish harpooning alive in the Atlantic, not as a quaint anachronism but because, in the face of all that's happened in fishing, harpooning still makes sense—for the environment, for the spirits of the men who do it, for the future of the fish."

That brings Rigney back to his question: Given the way things are, how does Saul survive?

"For a while," Rigney writes, "he says nothing; then he answers: 'There's only so much a man can take, isn't there? They keep puttin' the screws to us. But I ain't going to quit. I'm gonna fight the bastards. There's nothin' else to do. Your back's against the wall, that's all you got.'"

Comments (1)
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What a careful, thoughtful, soulful piece of writing about a great book, and an important issue, Tom Vannah. Thank you for bringing your attention to bear upon Rigney's book and the idea that the Sea, and its creatures, must be regarded with respect and awareness, rather than unbridled greed . . . or event contempt. It's clear from your article, and his book, that what's at stake is far more than we any of us should justify losing: the balance of the ocean world itself, the few remaining GIANTS, the worlds they preside over, livlihoods of many, not to mention whole cultures, as welk as the sense of wonder the fish and their environment inspire in those lucky enough to encounter them, as Rigney was. I'm reading this remarkable book myself at the moment and Tom, you've done it justice here. Excellent article. Thank you for brining all of this to a wider audience.

Posted by Holly on 6.20.12 at 7:45
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