In September and October the tuna were killed, 55 of them, but Ettman refused to watch. "You get to know these tuna," he said. Now he has eight compounds at four traps, holding more than 600 tuna weighing up to 1,100 pounds. He still doesn't watch when slaughtering time comes.
It is a nine-mile run from Indian Harbour to the Janel compounds on the west and north shores of St. Margaret's Bay where they are protected from the prevailing southwesterly. The old lobster boats creep along, piled eight feet high with crates of oozing, half frozen baitfish. The place to stand is upwind. Through binoculars one can see the tuna, finning impatiently. They know the vibrations of the Janel boats but do not stir when other boats come near. The big fish have lost some muscle tone in captivity, but the flesh is still fine, and the sight and commotion of a 1,000-pounder engulfing a mackerel two feet from your nose stay with you awhile, like the sound of a lion roaring outside your tent at 2 a.m. A tuna that size eats 50 pounds of fish a day. Though experiments with three daily feedings have resulted in a 25% increase in food intake, it still must be determined if the weight gain is proportionate. A scientist is asked, "Is the purpose of this research to help people like Jay Ettman?" "Not necessarily," he replies. "Unless one understands the animal, conservation is really a shot in the dark."
Across the bay from Janel, Bobby Conrad, a mackerel trapper, has started his own ranch, and this year he raised about 400 tuna. (The quota for the bay is 1,200 fish of more than 300 pounds.)
Slaughtering the giant tuna began last month, and will continue at regular intervals until early November. The last group will be killed just before the lowering water temperature does the job and ruins the meat. It is important not to ship too many tuna at once to Japan. That would glut the market and bring down prices. There are men who make careers of studying the complexities of the tuna market, and Jay Ettman has one at his plant. He is in constant communication with the home office in Japan, and sometimes the bills for those calls alone run to $1,000 a week.
From 15 to 35 tuna are killed at a time, depending on market conditions. It is a job for 10 men. Six large row-boats are towed to the compound, and a false net floor is lowered by ropes at one end. The fishermen peer into the water, waiting for a group of tuna to pass beneath. When someone shouts, "Go," everyone starts hauling. Sometimes 30 giant tuna start coming up at once as they feel the false floor rising beneath them. As they sense their growing entrapment, they go berserk, lunging aimlessly, ramming bloodily into each other, smashing their immense tails on the water, shredding them against the boats. Now the bark of the shotgun echoes across the bay, again and again, and soon the fishermen are drenched in blood. No one has photographed the killing of the tuna. Ettman will not allow it. He does not want "little old ladies parading outside the plant with placards."
At the plant the carcasses are packed in six-foot wooden crates, called coffins in the trade, and trucked to New York's Kennedy Airport. On the manifest is the warning DO NOT OPEN IN U.S.—MERCURY CONTAMINATED. Twenty hours after leaving Kennedy the tuna are on display at Tokyo's Tsukiji market. A whole fish can bring $8 a pound; the fat belly meat is worth much more.
One scientist has been trying to produce the fatty tissue faster than nature can do it. He has been making sausages, cramming them with shrimp and crushed lobster bodies, then stuffing them in bait-fish and feeding them to tuna. So far the results are inconclusive. Ettman isn't worried. He hasn't had to meet a deadline in seven years now, and he says of his new career, "This caps a lifetime of devotion to the outdoors. To know that I'm contributing to scientific knowledge, as well as making a buck, that's incredibly important to me."