In 1969, I was living at Hapuna Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was 25 years old and had recently taken a leave-of-absence from Southern Illinois University, where I’d been a PhD candidate and an instructor in the English department. As I’d spent 20 of my 25 years in schooling by then, it seemed like a good idea to take a year out.
However, after a few months I ran out of money and needed to find a job. A serendipitous series of events led me to the deck of the Alika, a 65-ton ahi (yellowfin tuna) boat in Hilo Harbor on the windward eastern coast of the island. Actually, I didn’t remain on deck very long as I was immediately handed a shovel and sent down into the cavernous fish hold to load ice for a five-day tuna-fishing trip.
The Alika fished for ahi with live bait, which was kept in a large tank of circulating sea water. The bait was opelu (jack mackerel), which is called aji in Japan. The method was handlining, which is known as ippon zuri in Japan, where it is famously practiced in the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido by the Pacific bluefin tuna fishermen out of Oma Port on the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture.
In handline fishing, a single baited hook is used on the end of a line that’s typically about 30 meters long.
The Oma fishermen usually work alone with the aid of an electrified ring they send down the line to stun big fish, and a battery-powered puller and winch to haul their catches aboard.
In contrast, we employed two men per line — one to pull the fish by hand to the side of the boat, the other, bigger and stronger, to gaff it in the gills and then to manually lift it onto the boat.
Gaffing is a highly skilled job. If the gaff penetrates the meat of the fish, its price at auction would be drastically lowered, meaning it is essential to gaff struggling fish in the gills and nowhere else.
Another difference between Oma and Hawaii was the size of the fish. Oma’s hon maguro often weigh 200 kg or more, while the average Hawaiian ahi is around 70 kg, with big ones tipping the scales at 90 kg.
Finally, the waters we fished were quite different, too. Windward Hawaii has a tropical climate moderated by the Northeast Trade Winds, which produce a regular ocean swell that’s easy to travel and fish in. It’s a starkly different scenario in the Tsugaru Strait, which is far colder and plagued by strong Arctic winds, treacherous currents and choppy seas thrown up as the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan connect through this narrow passage. Outside of the Bering Sea, this could be the most dangerous fishing ground on the planet.
By 1972, I had moved to the west coast of Canada, bought a small live-aboard sailboat and put in a trip on a salmon purse-seine-net boat out of the Kwagiulth Indian village of Alert Bay in British Columbia. These boats surround a school of salmon with the net, then pull a line to close the purse with the fish caught inside — just like you would pull on a purse string to close it.
When the salmon season closed, I heard of an albacore tuna troller looking for a cook/deckhand over on the neighboring island community of Sointula. The three- week fishing trip that ensued, 100 km off the north end of Vancouver Island on a 60-ton schooner named Seamaid, was my introduction to trolling — and over the next 20 years I spent seven of them trolling offshore for salmon or albacore.
Perhaps the highlight of my 23-year fishing career was as captain of a 20-ton ketch-rigged motor-sailer called Daemon in 1977, trolling for albacore under full sail off Cape St. James, Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), again in British Columbia.
In 1979, I purchased a 10-ton shellfish collector vessel named Ancestor V, a cutter-rigged motor-sailer on which I spent the next three years in Georgia Strait, western Canada’s inland sea between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia.
Then I fished on the Daemon again, also in Georgia Strait, in the winter longline fishery for dogfish sharks, before returning to the North Pacific offshore trade again from 1985-87 on a 5-ton salmon troller named Wanderlust.
I never did go back to Southern Illinois to complete my dissertation, but my M.A. degree has enabled me to teach at universities in Japan since 1998.
Herman Melville, author of the great, 1851 American novel “Moby Dick,” once said, “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard”; for me, the tuna boat was my PhD.