Mightier Than the Swordfish: Nova Scotia's Harpoon Fishermen

No 77

A hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, fishermen are in offseason mode. If it were wintertime, they’d be hauling lobster in closer to shore. But now, in July, they’re far from the familiar topography of Shag Harbor. They’re on the lookout for swordfish, and they’re using a deadly tool rarely seen in Western waters anymore: harpoons.

Appropriately, perhaps, given the season, this summertime work is less labor-intensive than lobstering. It’s also less profitable. Yes, there is a wholesale market for swordfish. But pursuing these apex predators across the Atlantic with spears is almost more of a pastime than a profession—a marine form of hunting that gets a man out of the house and helps him keep his senses sharp.

The harpoon is a primitive, precise weapon that would seem to have had its moment. Many (but not all) of the whale species that once succumbed to the spear are now officially protected from it, and today’s commercial fishing concerns take a more omnivorous approach to harvesting large fish. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Drift nets, long lines, and other modern methods generate wasteful bycatch, a result unknown to the harpoon fisherman.

Only after many dull hours does he find his target. Staying alert in calm conditions—the sun beating down, no shore in sight—is one of the main challenges. Fishermen refer to days like these, when the ocean gets heavy and iridescent as a pool of oil, as “slickers.” The upside, though, is good visibility. In clear weather, using military-grade binoculars, a captain at his observation post can see for three miles in either direction.

He’s looking for one thing: a fin as it “nicks” the surface. The swordfish’s crescent-shaped dorsal fin is distinct from that of a sunfish or dolphin, but more easily confused with a shark’s. If the fin seems worth pursuing, the captain steps on the gas, and the harpooner prepares to “stick” the fish. The best place for him to aim from is directly above it, which allows him to hurl his weapon straight down. He’ll try to target softer flesh, not bony spine. Choppier waters add to the challenge. The harpoon’s head is tethered to large buoys, which prevent the wounded fish from diving. The largest buoy puts out a GPS signal, should the captain lose sight of it.

Some days a crew sees no fish at all. A slow swordfish season can last several months, the surfeit of downtime threatening to exhaust all conversation topics. But when the conditions and their skills align, a crew might end up plenty busy, and reach its quota within a week or less. Then it’s back to port, and the very different rhythms of life on shore. 

Credits

  • Director, cinematographer, & producer - Oliver Hartman
  • Editor - Matt Schaff
  • Color - Carlos Flores
  • Sound design - Josh Wilson
  • Text - Michael Blum

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