Wicked Tuna is a documentary/reality TV show which airs on the National Geographic channel. Its first series was shown in 2012 and the second in 2013 with the shows success meaning another series was aired the following year.
Working out of Gloucester, Massachusetts the fishermen in Wicked Tuna use heavyweight fishing rods and massive multiplier reels to catch fish. The boats are technologically advanced with fish finders that allow the crews to track down and target individual large fish. In the third series there is also spotter planes used to track down tuna. ‘Hooking up’ with a tuna is certainly exciting and line is stripped from the reels and a huge amount of physical effort is taken to get the fish alongside the boat where a hand-held harpoon is thrown into the tuna and a rope then slipped around its tail. Successfully getting a large tuna on board leads to much celebration from the crews as the monetary value is calculated. We get the well-worn narratives of fishing as a way of life and a father bringing their son on board to teach him about fishing bring out all of the old “fishing in the blood” clichés. We also see how much money the fishermen have made from each trip with on screen graphics explaining the difference between how much they have made from their catch and how much they have spent on bait/fuel etc. There is much made about how difficult it is to make a living in this way, and the viewer is often reminded of how much the boats cost to run and how much must be spent on maintenance. However, we also get an idea of how much tuna are worth, with a 364kg (800lb) tuna worth $9500, and a10ft, 490kg (1080lb) tuna fetching $15,000.
The competition between fishermen and vessels is played up massively with some episodes such as “Size Matters” pretty much devoted to this theme. There is massive competition to catch a 1000lb+ tuna with much ‘banter’ between crews when once has caught a tuna of this size and others haven’t. Other episodes focus on different issues such as “Weekend Warriors” which sees the crews battle with ‘googans’- pleasure anglers who get in the way and prevent them from catching tuna. We also see all of the usual thins which feature in this type of show such as vessels getting into trouble due to technical issues and other boats having to tow them back to shore, losing fishing time and money in the process.
The show follows a similar format to the long-running Deadliest Catch in the sense that it follows the crews of vessels as they are out fishing. However the scale is very different as they boats in this series are much smaller at around 30-35ft with a few people on board and only go to sea for one or two days at a time. This contrasts with the vessels in Deadliest Catch that are around 150ft and go to sea for weeks or even months.
One of the fundamental problems with the pogramme is that it follows fishermen who are targeting bluefin tuna. This is a species which is classed as Endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and the series has attracted criticism for providing a positive view of fishermen who target this species. Further criticism has been levelled at the fact that National Geographic – a not for profit scientific and educational institution which has the motto “inspiring people to care about the planet” – lends its name to the channel which shows this programme. In an attempt to tackle the conservation issues which are inherent in this show each episode starts with the following information:
“Bluefin tun populations are at about a quarter of 1950s levels. As the world debates about how to save the species, there are fishermen who depend on them to make their living … one bluefin at a time.”
There is also a clip shown in every episode where we hear experts from ICCAT (International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) and the World Wildlife Fund say things like “What we did to the buffalo on land we are doing to the tuna in the sea” and “bluefin tuna in a dire predicament.” But then some of the fishermen featured in the show state that US tuna fisheries are highly regulated and if the rest of the world followed their lead things would be ok. This appears to be an attempt to open up debate and show both sides of the argument. However, as it is the exact same clip shown in every single episode and no debate or explanation follows it appears to be very much tacked on and seems very much like it is simply lipservice to conservation issues.
There are scenes where we see the fishermen measure tuna and return undersize ones back into the sea – tuna must be over 73 inches to retain and sell. However, the delight with which tuna are taken from the sea leaves the viewer thinking that conservation and regulation is something endured rather than embraced by the fishermen featured in this programme. Further scenes strengthen this belief, such as when Dave Marciano, captain of Hard Merchandise, inadvertently catches a thresher shark (IUCN Status: Vulnerable). He cannot sell the shark as he has no permit for it, but rather than release it he kills it and chops it into pieces to eat and give away to friends and family. Such an anti-conservationist attitude does little to convince the viewer that this kind of fishing is sustainable.
The spin-off series Wicked Tuna: North Vs. South was began in 2014.
Buy Wicked Tuna: Season 1 on DVD from Amazon by clicking here.