It's 5.30 a.m. and chilly when I roll out of bed. The sky is becoming very rosy indeed. Not a good sign, according to the old rhyme. I swallow my Gravol and pray.
Half an hour later I'm at the North Lake Harbour. By 6.30 a 45-foot Arsenal fishing boat with a 435hp engine, is pulling away from the PEI shoreline. On board, besides myself, are fishermen Marc Sutherland, Mark Robertson, and Carl Cluney-and a 12-pack of Schooner beer.
We're on the hunt for bluefin tuna-that fast, vast predator of the sea that can reach more than 1,000 lbs. Caught on single rods and reels, and commonly taking many hours to subdue, these marine giants turn commercial fishing into a Hemingwayesque endeavour.
North Lake Harbour, Prince Edward Island, is a tidy little collection of fishing shanties and warehouses near the province's eastern tip.
It proudly declares itself the "Tuna Capital of the World". In the 1970s and 80s, it was a hotspot for tuna sportfishing and, even today, North Lake fishermen hold the lion's share of the 340 tuna-fishing licences issued on the island. It was a North Laker who, in 1979, caught the largest (1,496 lbs) tuna on record, albeit off the coast of Cape Breton.
Atlantic bluefin tuna is considered one of the greatest delicacies in the seafood business, particularly in Japan, where it is sold at exorbitant prices for sushi and sashimi. At a recent New Year's auction, a 282 lb premium bluefin sold in Tokyo for $104,000 (or $370 a pound).
Chronic global overfishing has reduced bluefin stocks dramatically in the last 50 years; the resource is now - in theory - managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), which establishes fishing quotas and equipment guidelines for its 43 member countries, including Canada.
A mile or so offshore, we stop engines. A couple of lines with small hooks are thrown overboard to catch mackerel for bait. They'll be kept alive in tanks on the deck, with fresh seawater pumped in periodically to keep them perky.
There's a flotilla of maybe 70 or 80 boats strung out across the bay, doing the very same thing. The sea so far is no more than a gentle swell. The men think it'll be a nice day; they dismiss the red dawn as "coincidence".
Sutherland, 34, is the boat's skipper. Fishing is in his blood. His grandfather and his father fished for cod, crab and lobster. He's been fishing commercially since he was a teenager-seven years of lobster fishing with his father and 10 years on his own.
It's all he's ever wanted to do. If he weren't a fisherman, he says, he'd be "nuthin'".
Most of the tuna pulled in at North Lake are destined for the Japanese market, auctioned off on the spot at prices substantially lower than the final buyers will pay.
Middlemen for the international buyers arrive at the harbour warehouse each morning during the tuna-fishing season and inspect the catch closely to determine quality.
They feel the thickness of the belly wall to assess the fat content of each fish; and cast critical eyes at such telltale features as tail colour and shape. "A nice-shaped tuna is like a nice girl," one of them tells me, gesturing graphically. "For resale in Japan, they want a nice shape."
This is one time when size, surprisingly, doesn't matter. A 900-lb fish may make for good photographs, but a smaller fish is easier to section and sell before it loses its freshness.
Auction prices may range from $2 or $3 a pound to $15 or $20 for a "good" fish. (Compare these prices to what the fish sells for in Tokyo!) Although a high-quality tuna can net $10,000, the fishermen are often frustrated with the way the system works.
Says Tamy Peters, 48, whose catch on a particular August morning fetches only $3.84 per lb, "They're telling us the meat wasn't good, but it doesn't look much different from the one that went for $8".
The mackerel aren't biting. We need about a dozen ("Hell, half a dozen will do; we're not askin' for much," complains Sutherland) before we start drifting for tuna; it takes an hour and a half to collect eight. "It's usually not this hard to get the mackerel," he says; but all around us, the other boats seem to be having the same problem.
Around 8 a.m., we finally have a few mackerel in the tanks; we're ready to roll.
We motor out to sea, then stop and bait the lines, which are set at different depths. One line is rigged to a fishing kite attached to a big helium balloon, to keep the baitfish swimming near the surface. Dead mackerel are chopped up as "chum" and thrown overboard, in the hope of attracting the tuna.
Sutherland has only been fishing for tuna for about five years; his first love, and main source of income, is lobster. Tuna, he grumbles, is "not my cup of tea; too much waitin' around."
By the end of the day, after 13 hours on the water, I'll know exactly what he means.
Unlike some ICCAT members, Canada is extremely stringent in regulating and monitoring its tuna fishery. Strict controls on licences, equipment and fish size have been put in place, and official dockside observers tag, weigh and measure each bluefin that is brought in.
For 2008, ICCAT negotiated with its member states to cap the bluefin catch at 28,500 tonnes for the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic tuna stocks; however, ICCAT quotas are often honoured more in the breach than the observance.
Several countries (notably France, Spain and Italy) habitually exceed their sizable allocations by as much as 30 per cent; and Greenpeace frequently documents illegal procedures such as drift nets and spotter planes.
The result is a fishery which ICCAT scientists are warning may be on the brink of extinction, like cod in the early 90s.
Canada, the U.S. and Mexico fish from the Western Atlantic tuna stock and receive substantially smaller ICCAT allocations: Canada's quota for 2008 was 546 tonnes and this will drop in 2009. Since bluefin is a highly migratory species, and the stocks do intermingle, severe overfishing in the Mediterranean has the potential to decimate North American stocks.
1p.m.: We've been drifting for hours, without a bite.
The mackerel, on the other hand, have suddenly turned kamikaze; all but lining up to grab the small hooks. We now have enough bait to drift for a week-but no tuna.
Sutherland consults the boat's depth-sounder for signs of the big fish. Different species show up on the sounder's screen as different-coloured blobs and specks. "A tuna looks like an upside-down banana," Mark Robertson explains.
We still haven't had a nibble on the lines, not even when the depth sounder shows four or five "bananas" directly below our boat. Drawls Cluney: "Under the boat ain't nothin'."
But this is what fishing is: patience, a philosophical approach. Nothing is guaranteed. "It's just part of the game," shrugs Robertson." If we don't catch nothin', I've just come to hang out with Marc for the week. That's how you have to look at it."
Robertson, 38, was once an accountant, for about a year, before deciding that a life on the open sea suited him better.
"Once you get it in your blood, you always love the ocean," he muse; then adds: "And the money too. I could make $35,000 a year sitting in an office, or $150,000 out here in a couple months, fishing for lobster." He has his own lobster "fleet"; but in the tuna season, he buddies up with Sutherland.
Other boats are starting to "hook-up"; the news comes over the ship's radio, followed by a buzz of congratulations from all the other boats within earshot. It's a ritual, an expression of community: "Congratulations to Reality Check; from Sea Trooper."
"Congratulations to Grandmaster, from Neptuna."
If there's envy, it's kept well under wraps.
Hauling in the big fish requires at least two (preferably more) people to a boat: one at the wheel and one to play the fish.
Tamy Peters, who has been fishing with her husband Ron McMillan for 10 years (she estimates that at least 60 per cent of the boats have women as crew), once landed a 1,000-lb tuna by herself.
"You just hang on for dear life and pray!" she laughs. "We managed to get him in in 45 minutes. But a fish can fight for 20 hours-and then you can lose him."
She looks at a 520-lb tuna being hoisted on to the dock. "Those little ones can really fight you."
Once a fish has taken the hook, the crew's main concern is to make sure the nylon fishing line doesn't get tangled under the boat. They try to get a "dart" (a barbed spear) into it, as a backup in case their line breaks. Harpoon guns are not allowed.
When the tuna tires, they haul it alongside and wrestle a rope around its tail. The fish is then swum slowly to shore. After all its exertions, its tissues are hot and infused with lactic acid; if it dies in that state, it will be unsellable. A long slow swim allows it to cool down.
Still no fish: the day almost over.
We've changed drifts maybe a dozen times, each time going through the same drill of pulling in the lines, tossing the unfortunate mackerel back into the barrel; moving to a new spot and starting all over again. This is an exercise in endurance; and hope that springs eternal. It strikes me as very Canadian.
I'm trying to understand the motivation - besides, of course, the off-chance of making a big chunk of change. Why do these men do this? Seriously: Why?
"Peaceful," says Sutherland succinctly.
"The freedom," declares Robertson.
"Salt water in your blood," says Cluney. The most taciturn of the three, he opens up a little: "Been around water all my life. Swim in it, fish in it-hard to get out, hard to get away from. Couldn't get me to live in a city. Go to Charlottetown, I get homesick."
He tries to explain the adrenalin rush of a tuna strike: "When the rod takes off, you'll know. Your heart jumps about five times as much; takes an hour to calm down."
He has about 15 tuna under his belt-"not countin' the ones I lost." And what's that like, I ask: losing a fish? "Not good," says Cluney. "It's heartbreakin'. But that's fishin'."
Canada's quota of bluefin tuna is allocated to the different maritime regions by the Department of Fisheries & Oceans. In the past, the allocations were very loosely managed: boats across the east coast indulged in a competitive free-for-all until the national quota was reached.
In 2004, however, the system of "fleet quotas" was established, to create stability among the various regions. Each province is issued its quota and allowed to decide how and when to amass it.
When a region's quota is reached, the fishery is closed. If full quota is not achieved, it is added to the next year's total. In 2007, for the first time (and again in 2008), PEI's tuna advisory board-made up of fishermen's representatives from across the island-decided to split their fishing season, catching about half their quota in early August and then going after the rest in mid-September.
The rationale was that the "better" fish (fatter, more valuable, able to fetch a higher price) are hooked in September, when they're gorging in preparation for their winter migration.
After 13 hours at sea, we throw in the towel. My shipmates don't seem discouraged by their fruitless (or fishless) efforts.
"When you get into this life, you know that's how it is," says Sutherland. "In a season of 60 to 80 days fishing, a lucky fisherman might hook 10 or 15. This year, only about 15 to 20 per cent of the boats per day are hooking up."
As we're about to head in, a call comes in on the radio: another fisherman is losing battery power fast, and needs assistance.
Sutherland changes course immediately; he has a spare battery on board. "Everyone tries to help each other out," he says briefly. "Being without a battery out here can be dangerous."
Before we reach the stricken boat, however, the skipper has rectified the problem; no rescue is necessary.
It's dark as we pull into North Lake Harbour. Twenty-five fish have come in that day. More than 100 boats went out.
For those who weren't lucky, there's always tomorrow. Or barring that, September. Surely, the tuna will be biting then.
Bluefin tuna are among the largest, fastest predators in the sea. Their streamlined, teardrop-shaped bodies, with drag-reducing retractable fins, can reach speeds of up to 72 kmph, though their more usual cruising speed is around 6-8 kmph. A rigid skull means that this species cannot suck water past their gills: like sharks, they must keep moving in order to breathe.
Unlike most cold-blooded fish, bluefin tuna can raise their body temperature, though a process called thermoregulation, to about 20 degrees higher than the surrounding waters, which allows them to hunt in cold waters.
Voracious eaters, they feed on herring, mackerel and squid, bursting through schools of fish with their mouths open, and scooping up everything in their path. They spend their summers eating, building up energy reserves for their long migration to the south, where they spawn.
Experts believe there are two stocks of Atlantic bluefin: one spawns in the Mediterranean Sea, the other in the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Straits. They theorize that the two stocks forage together in the North Atlantic, and travel to opposite sides of the ocean to reproduce. Most Canadian tuna spawn in the Gulf of Mexico; the remainder come from the Eastern Atlantic.