Ellis Hodgkins stands in his doorway, huddled against the wind, squinting out to sea with his one good eye. Another fall is ending in Rockport, Mass., his cameo of a town, but in the little harbor at his feet his 36-foot sports fisherman, LuAnn, is still ready to sail, rigged for bluefin tuna. He would like to be on LuAnn every day now, heading to sea, as he did when he was the Boy Wonder of the Bay State fishing fleet.
That is what the
called him 13 years ago, when he was 26, before the fishing went bad. And one vision, impressed upon him then, still haunts him; it was the way a giant tuna looked, lunging for a trolled string of mackerel, "like an airplane crashing on my bait." He never got enough of that. But in the mid-'60s the fishery all but ended, and Hodgkins became just another of its failures, except that he had farther to fall than most. In 1961 his clients had caught 182 tuna; in 1962, 81; in 1963, 58; and in 1964, 13. He could see the trend. So with his reputation intact he quit full-time chartering, though he did continue to fish on weekends, for his own pleasure.
He went to work for a Volkswagen dealer in nearby Beverly, selling cars. And he began building a different kind of reputation. His porch, above Rockport's T Wharf and inner harbor, was "the best place in the world to watch ladies from," he would say, and the ladies liked his wisecracking and his easy smile. But some of the matrons of Rockport did not approve of Hodgkins' new life-style. Unfairly, they said he was drunk on the January morning in 1973 when he cracked up his Porsche, breaking nearly every bone in his head, mangling a leg and losing the sight in his right eye. A nurse at the hospital that morning had his picture in her wallet. That helped them put his face together again. But now the depth perception in his good eye is shot, and he was color-blind to start with. He goes to gaff a fish and misses. He limps badly, his balance is bad, and though he never complains, often he is in pain. He has at least a foot of faint scars on his pleasant, handsome face, and his hair is prematurely flecked with gray. He still works for Volkswagen, as general manager now, a less taxing, less exciting job than tuna chartering. But he cannot stop dreaming of how it used to be. Catching big fish, he knows, confers a kind of immortality on a man; selling cars does not. And so, at 39, he waits for the old days to return. He has never ducked a challenge; every day he swims and lifts weights to strengthen his leg. In his little apartment, its ceiling a maze of rods and reels, the VHF receiver and the 23-channel citizen's band radio are left on round the clock. Sometimes he wakens at 4 a.m. to lie in the dark and listen to the captains of draggers 90 miles at sea. He does not want to miss a thing. He says, "If there's great fishing next year I'll be out every day."
It is a very big If.
The trouble really began when to most it seemed over—in the late '60s. The fishing had been awful from 1965 to 1969, but suddenly a superrace of bluefin tuna appeared. In the fall of 1970 the 20-year all-tackle record was broken three times in three months, with fish of 985, 1,040 and 1,065 pounds, at Montauk Point, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. While tuna under 500 pounds were a rarity at every Atlantic tuna port, the giant fish kept coming into the new decade. Ellis Hodgkins brought a 786-pounder into Gloucester, his biggest ever, a tuna that would have gotten him elected mayor in 1960, when his fish averaged about 300 pounds. But no one even blinked now. Record-conscious anglers were thrilled, but scientists were worried. The huge fish were very old, they pointed out, and their breeding days were numbered. Medium-sized fish, of 70 to 270 pounds, with long futures as breeders, had become very scarce. And there was heavy commercial pressure on the small fish, those up to 100 pounds, the hope for the future.
Of all those who raised concerned voices, none had done more tuna research than Frank J. Mather III of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His tagging programs had been the first to prove an intermingling of European and North American tuna, and he detailed the dramatic decline of the species in recent years in Europe; how once-great fisheries had failed in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, Sardinia and Italy. In a paper, The Bluefin Tuna Situation, he wrote, "The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is in trouble.... Unless some action is taken...the inevitable disappearance of these old fish will leave only a few small spawners, with low fecundity. This will mean the economic extinction of the species."
Then came the season of 1972. Fish buyers from Japan showed up on the East Coast and at Prince Edward Island. They came in September, when the giant tuna were fat from a summer of feeding, and they brought a lot of money. They waited each day for the wholesalers to buy the tuna from the fishermen, and then, the fish cleaned, they stuck probing fingers into the stomach cavities to check the fat content of the belly flank. Ah, they would say, all smiles, and within 24 hours the tuna were being flown to Japan, fresh—not frozen—out of New York.
The sushi shops were waiting for toro, the fat flesh of the bluefin tuna, a delicacy in Japan. They serve it as sashimi (raw fish) or as sushi (raw fish with rice). The buyers paid very well for the toro. Through much of the fall of 1973 the price of cleaned fish at Gloucester ranged from 85�-per pound to $1.50 as the season ended and the fish became scarce. And since a dressed-out tuna loses only about 20% of its weight, at $1 a pound an 800-pound fish was worth $640. Tuna fishing was becoming the Yankee equivalent of the Gold Rush. Said Charlie Curcuru, of Producers Fish Co., "There's no such thing as a sportsman anymore. A sportsman donates his fish to charity. Now they're the hardest bargainers of all."
Word got out fast, and soon the Massachusetts tuna grounds were aswarm with everything short of bathtubs. Out-boards were bobbing around 15 miles from land. Suddenly everyone and his brother wanted to be a tuna fisherman, and almost everyone caught tuna, giant tuna. Ellis Hodgkins, still recuperating from his accident, brought in two one October evening, one of 580, the other of more than 600 pounds, and got 85� per pound. And at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries they were busy reviewing the status of the species.
On Aug. 1 of this year the state imposed a group of regulations on the fishery. Each vessel would be limited to two fish per day, or to a season's catch roughly equivalent to 80% of its 1973 catch. Purse seining was limited to September and October, and to the one boat that had already been active. There would be a seasonal limit of 225 tons from Cape Cod north, and of 1,200 tons in the offshore waters south of the Cape, primarily an area of small fish under 100 pounds. As drastic as the law seemed to fishermen, it was less so than this year's regulations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where only rod-and-reel fishing is permitted, and a total of only 800 tuna may be caught before the season is closed. Still, it was a controversial move for Massachusetts. The strictly commercial men—the harpooners, seiners and handliners—insisted that there were more tuna than ever, of all sizes, but that the rod-and-reel men could not catch them because the heavy traffic overhead had made the fish smarter, or scarier, or because they had gone deeper, or just plain elsewhere.