Values collide and wisdom is a fuzzy thing. Who is to condemn the fishermen of Nova Scotia's St. Margaret's Bay, where a creature of grace and wonder has been made into a dull farm beast to be fattened and sold at auction? Call it bluefin tuna ranching; in St. Margaret's they call it a godsend.
Some of the tuna weigh half a ton, and more than 900 have been held captive all this past summer, in pens they can cross with a flip of their scimitar-shaped tails. Now they are being killed with shotguns, an incongruous end to these examples of the most perfect swimming machine on earth. But Japanese fish buyers are paying a dollar or more per pound for bluefin tuna.
The tuna ranches are three years old, and they are unique. Japanese buyers have been in the North Atlantic, where the bluefins roam in summer and fall, since the early '70s, when unprecedented numbers of tuna in the 1,000-pound class began to appear. Since smaller tuna have become scarce, regulations have been imposed by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Environment to limit the catch of the giants, which alarmed scientists call the last of the big breeders. The restriction has made the fish all the more precious in Japan, where their rich, oily flesh is a delicacy. Last week, in Tokyo's finest restaurants, two bites of raw tuna dipped in soy sauce and green horseradish went for $11, and in Nova Scotia, a land of perfect little harbors crammed with rotting fish heads, no one feels any guilt about supplying the Japanese with tuna. Don't tell a Nova Scotia man about style. His job is surviving.
Tuna farming employs 125 men from five villages—feeding, killing, packing and shipping the bluefin. Thirty thousand pounds of bait are consumed by the 900 tuna each day—mackerel, herring, sauries, pollack and squid. That involves a lot of other Nova Scotians, fishermen and bait dealers. Mrs. Elizabeth Lawrence, a county counselor who has many constituents in the tuna farming business, says, "I've been here 12 years and this is the first time I've heard a cheerful word about inshore fishing."
But the director of the largest tuna farm, a 62-year-old ex-New Yorker named S. Jay Ettman, is ambivalent about his meal ticket. "I could put a thousand fish in my nets each year," Ettman says, "but I won't."
"Why not?" he is asked, and in reply he talks about rod and reel fishing, of his boating two tuna in the '50s and then quitting going after them forever. He says, "A bluefin tuna is the mightiest creature from another world, and catching one is like shooting an elephant. I don't believe any man has a right to more than two." Those are strange words from the director of a tuna farm. But giant tuna have a way of getting to you.
With the fishermen of St. Margaret's Bay, however, where there is no tradition of rod and reel tuna fishing, giant tuna have never been anything but a nuisance, a destroyer of the mackerel traps for which their bay is famous. The tuna would chase the mackerel into the traps and the fishermen would hack them to death with pickaxes and sell the flesh as pet food for a nickel a pound. But that market ended in 1970, when high levels of mercury were discovered in giant tuna, and the U.S. and Canada banned their sale. Back in 1937 a few bluefin had been kept in a pound off Hubbard's Cove until the price went up slightly in the fall, but there had been barely enough bait to keep them alive. The fisherman broke even and the project was dropped. That was the world's first bluefin tuna farm. Jay Ettman's was the first successful one, 38 years later.
Ettman spent 30 years writing for detective magazines. "The dick books," he calls them. "Fifty-two deadlines a year," and he stood the pace with the help of sailing vacations on St. Margaret's Bay. But in 1970 Ettman suffered a heart attack, his doctor warned him about what the deadlines were doing to him and in 1973, after a Japanese firm asked him to buy tuna for it in Nova Scotia, he formed Janel Fisheries, named for his daughters, Jane and Ellen. That was in July, the mackerel traps were being smashed apart, and before Ettman knew it he had 165 tuna iced on the floor of his shed at Indian Harbour on the bay's east shore. But it was too early. The fatty flesh the Japanese prize most highly is nature's preparation for the tuna's long fall migrations, and Ettman's lean summer fish were of little value. So Ettman conceived of the tuna farm; it took him a year of planning before he was ready to approach Canadian fisheries people. He pointed out that the tuna he would raise had always been killed by the irate mackerel fishermen anyway, but with little profit for anyone, and he offered his facilities as a lab for marine scientists, the first of its kind anywhere for bluefin tuna.
In July of 1975 Ettman had Japanese technicians build him two net compounds, each roughly 45 feet deep, 150 feet wide and 320 feet long. These holding pens are attached to a mackerel trap by means of a chute made of netting, and the tuna that enter the trap are driven into the holding pens. The heavy mesh nets at the corners of the pens are held in a curved shape so that there are no sharp angles where the fish will feel trapped and panic. Instead they just keep swimming on and on in a vain attempt to reach the end of the nets; the same design is used for the tanks for big fish in most aquariums.
Soon Canadian scientists began arriving. Ultrasonic tags were used to monitor body and water temperatures and the depth the tuna swim. It was discovered that eating frozen bait lowers the tuna's stomach temperature. Pancreas cells were studied as possible sources of insulin, but extraction proved to be commercially impractical. Divers learned that tuna have a pecking order, like chickens, with dominant feeders in each group.
In September and October the tuna were killed, 55 of them, but Ettman refused to watch. "You get to know these tuna," he said. Now he has eight compounds at four traps, holding more than 600 tuna weighing up to 1,100 pounds. He still doesn't watch when slaughtering time comes.
It is a nine-mile run from Indian Harbour to the Janel compounds on the west and north shores of St. Margaret's Bay where they are protected from the prevailing southwesterly. The old lobster boats creep along, piled eight feet high with crates of oozing, half frozen baitfish. The place to stand is upwind. Through binoculars one can see the tuna, finning impatiently. They know the vibrations of the Janel boats but do not stir when other boats come near. The big fish have lost some muscle tone in captivity, but the flesh is still fine, and the sight and commotion of a 1,000-pounder engulfing a mackerel two feet from your nose stay with you awhile, like the sound of a lion roaring outside your tent at 2 a.m. A tuna that size eats 50 pounds of fish a day. Though experiments with three daily feedings have resulted in a 25% increase in food intake, it still must be determined if the weight gain is proportionate. A scientist is asked, "Is the purpose of this research to help people like Jay Ettman?" "Not necessarily," he replies. "Unless one understands the animal, conservation is really a shot in the dark."
Across the bay from Janel, Bobby Conrad, a mackerel trapper, has started his own ranch, and this year he raised about 400 tuna. (The quota for the bay is 1,200 fish of more than 300 pounds.)
Slaughtering the giant tuna began last month, and will continue at regular intervals until early November. The last group will be killed just before the lowering water temperature does the job and ruins the meat. It is important not to ship too many tuna at once to Japan. That would glut the market and bring down prices. There are men who make careers of studying the complexities of the tuna market, and Jay Ettman has one at his plant. He is in constant communication with the home office in Japan, and sometimes the bills for those calls alone run to $1,000 a week.
From 15 to 35 tuna are killed at a time, depending on market conditions. It is a job for 10 men. Six large row-boats are towed to the compound, and a false net floor is lowered by ropes at one end. The fishermen peer into the water, waiting for a group of tuna to pass beneath. When someone shouts, "Go," everyone starts hauling. Sometimes 30 giant tuna start coming up at once as they feel the false floor rising beneath them. As they sense their growing entrapment, they go berserk, lunging aimlessly, ramming bloodily into each other, smashing their immense tails on the water, shredding them against the boats. Now the bark of the shotgun echoes across the bay, again and again, and soon the fishermen are drenched in blood. No one has photographed the killing of the tuna. Ettman will not allow it. He does not want "little old ladies parading outside the plant with placards."
At the plant the carcasses are packed in six-foot wooden crates, called coffins in the trade, and trucked to New York's Kennedy Airport. On the manifest is the warning DO NOT OPEN IN U.S.—MERCURY CONTAMINATED. Twenty hours after leaving Kennedy the tuna are on display at Tokyo's Tsukiji market. A whole fish can bring $8 a pound; the fat belly meat is worth much more.
One scientist has been trying to produce the fatty tissue faster than nature can do it. He has been making sausages, cramming them with shrimp and crushed lobster bodies, then stuffing them in bait-fish and feeding them to tuna. So far the results are inconclusive. Ettman isn't worried. He hasn't had to meet a deadline in seven years now, and he says of his new career, "This caps a lifetime of devotion to the outdoors. To know that I'm contributing to scientific knowledge, as well as making a buck, that's incredibly important to me."
Bluefin that usually roam the Atlantic in search of food now sidle up for handouts in their vast pen.