Beloved the world over for their meat and sought out for the ferocious fight they put up when caught with rod and reel, bluefin tuna have, in the esteem of most scientists, been fished to the brink of extinction. However, in eastern Canada, there is place where many locals believe this mighty fish is as strong and healthy as ever. Documentary filmmaker John Hopkins investigates and what he finds will make you wonder out loud about the human condition.
Do you eat bluefin?
Like many people, I’ve eaten bluefin sushi, but I had no idea what I was actually eating. Eating sushi seemed like a healthy way to eat, I love seafood, and sushi chefs are so artful in how beautiful they make everything look. I did not know bluefin were endangered.
We do not think of the relentlessly hunted bluefin in the same way as we do elephants, tigers, or orangutans. We grew up surrounded with stuffed toys, all mammals: seals, whales, lions, dolphins, but never a stuffed tuna! We bonded with these other animals, so as adults, not surprisingly, there’s a cuddle factor with them, but not with tuna. Bluefin are cold, fishy, and have big weird gills.
I realize now how monumental these creatures really are. They are warm-blooded like us and have incredibly sophisticated physiology. They’re the fastest fish in the ocean, the deepest-diving fish, and the furthest ranging. They hunt like a wolf pack and can be playful, as we saw when diving with 800 to 1,000 pound fish. They are gentle creatures and would never lay a fin on you. But we are so mean to them.
Eating one now would be more like cooking an eagle or a panda bear. Humans need to see these creatures in a new light. Their only defense is their stunning beauty, and that’s never been captured well, as they are normally highly elusive and shy. It is pathetic that these fish have lost their fear of us because we have forced them into submission and to beg from us, by overfishing their food source of once-plentiful herring and mackerel. So now you can easily hand-feed them next to the boat, making them tragically vulnerable.
But this also permitted my camera to shoot them like we have not seen them before in the wild, within inches of our lens. I repeatedly used these images as poetic interludes throughout the film so we can finally connect with them in a special, powerful, and intimate way.
How did you find this story?
Prince Edward Islands led me to this story as I grew up there, fly-fished all my life, and made my own rods and flies as my family always has. Of course, like any other fisherman, my dream was to battle one of these “monsters.” They’re the ultimate, the most powerful fish in the world.
I always knew North Lake had a mythical relationship to these giants. It was expensive to go there and I was young with not much money. Then the fish completely disappeared; there was so much demand for them, some fish were selling for $40 per pound dockside. Not listening to the warnings of the scientists, we massacred them in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they arrive every fall to fatten up on herring and mackerel.
Meanwhile, the Japanese took every fish they could out of the Gulf of Mexico, where the fish travel thousands of miles south to spawn, and nearly emptied it. I gave up on the idea of ever catching one, the excitement of that faded for me and every other sport fisherman, and North Lake was a place soon forgotten along with the tuna queen pageants. Fingers wagged, and always “the seiners are to the blame,” which is true, but fishermen here never could see or admit that they were also part of the problem. In those days, the seas were inexhaustible. But losing the tuna ripped their pride and hearts out, as it was a real man’s game to catch the biggest fish, a world record. As one fisherman in our film describes it, “The history of North Lake is the history of the adrenaline rush.”
Prior to making Bluefin, my mother died, and I made a film about her ideas about art. By chance, the National Film Board’s head of English production at that time, Ravida Din, saw it at our small island film festival and thought it was really good. She asked me what I was making next.
I kinda fibbed and said I was making a film on bluefin tuna, not sure why. I did not know anything about tuna but I sensed something really important had happened there. She asked for a one-sheet and I sent her one. I began to research, looking for a story, and sure enough I came across some YouTube videos of local fishermen hand-feeding giant tuna off the coast of PEI, much to their sheer amazement. The tuna had come back, but they were different now, so friendly.
It was a mystery. Why were these fish so hungry? The thought of a biblical painting about fishermen feeding large tuna, so plentiful and dancing around the boat, came to my mind. I just thought, “Wow, there is something epic and tremendously important going on here.” It’s only by fate I stumbled on this story at the right time. It’s a story I strongly believe we need to understand for our own survival.
When I started filming, fishermen were convinced that if the scientists saw these fish and how incredibly abundant they are off PEI and in the Atlantic region, there is no way they would ever call them endangered. So they were eager to engage with the scientists, who in their minds were naive paper-pushers in cubicles who were hardly ever in North Lake.
Yet at the same time, they knew something was wrong, that the tuna’s behaviour had become so friendly, that they were chasing down their boats as food sources, literally swarming them. You can almost guarantee a hook-up now, and big money began rolling in as once again wealthy international sport fishermen started turning up.
The excitement was back, and so was the long-lost soul and lore of this community as the self-described “Tuna Capital of the World.” The stories of hunting tuna to catch only a single one after 30 days of searching are gone now, as more often enough than not you can be hooked up in two minutes only a mile or so offshore. It’s like fishing in an aquarium: the sport in it is somewhat dubious when it’s so easy to catch really hungry and tame tuna.
Once again, commercially caught rod-and-reel tuna are being hung on the wharf, making a great photo-op for fishermen surrounded by family — their ultimate hunter-gatherer identity powerfully confirmed. At night, camera shutters and flashes light up the broad backs of the silver tuna dangling next to sport fishermen with their bucket-list fish smiles. Eager tuna-buyers lurk nearby. History repeats itself for the same reasons.
Were you always welcomed while filming or was there some push back?
The charter tuna fishermen were open to being filmed as they were used to cameras being around from TV fishing-show crews or for six o’clock news stories with images of giant tuna hanging on the wharf as the commercial season opened. It’s publicity for them as little is done in PEI to adequately promote hook-and-release sport fishing versus chucking most of the marketing dollars at PEI as a golf destination, fun at the beach, or Anne of Green Gables enjoying a cordial.
I was very clear with the fishermen that this film would look at the fishery from all sides and there would be spinoffs such as big-game sport fishermen around the world seeing just how plentiful and big and powerful these tuna are here. But, more importantly, I explained that if fishermen wanted the public to hear their side of the story and not to be portrayed as just species-killers, the film would also need to hear from scientists who believe tuna are greatly depleted. They were okay with that because they were convinced scientists would be quickly converted to how they see things.
However, since the film has come out, some of the fishermen are really unhappy that scientists see things differently despite the mysterious and obvious huge abundance of fish they are seeing around their boats. Some feel I have betrayed them through the response scientists presented in the movie. It was never going to be a propaganda film for the local fishermen to argue for more quota.
When you consider that 99 percent of their income is from the lucrative lobster industry, it begs the question of whether any bluefin need to be killed here at all until we can all make sense of what is going on. Because certainly, something is happening that is phenomenal and they know it. Global warming pushing more tuna north is often cited as a big factor in this resurgence. That, and it is also clear fish are moving into Canada because the Americans along New England coast have decimated herring stocks, forcing fish to forage northwards.
But as you will see in my documentary, Atlantic Canadian fishermen are making the same mistake — and my prediction is the tuna will all soon leave again, ranging even further northward in search of food.
What’s your personal take on the mystery? Those tuna as tame as they look?
Inspired by docs like The Cove, Blackfish, and Sharkwater, I shot my film over five years and came to realize while sifting through this experience that this story is really a stark allegory, one that reveals as much about who we are as a species as it does about the mighty bluefin.
For North Lake, which has already lost its tuna fishery once and its identity as the “Tuna Capital of the World,” this tremendous return of giant bluefin is an incredible second chance for them. What are they doing with it?
It seems the old guys, crinkly fishermen who have suffered this loss in the past, are the most concerned these days. The new captains I interviewed were just kids on the wharf when the tuna and cod fisheries collapsed. Now they are captains, pushing the old guys off the podium and ignoring warnings they might have. It’s a generational gap thing, in which money takes precedence over memory and wisdom.
From top predators to whales, baitfish, and birds, I found a food chain in our ocean that’s precariously broken. It is clear all would be in otherwise perfect balance without human intervention. We are not part of the food chain. We are like some alien predator or invasive species with no natural relationship to this planet at all — the cane toads of the oceans, perhaps. Technology renders no protection for bluefin or other species to hide. I would like to see productive harmony restored between us and all life in our oceans.
When going deep on a topic like this it is easy to get depressed by the big picture realities. Where do you look for the hope?
In researching my film, I watched tons of fishing docs, and they can drive you into a deep-sea depression, constantly and didactically beating you over the head with facts and anecdotes, about how tremendously powerful the forces of fishing are and the kind of gear they are using, that by the end of the film you just want to go home and pull the shades down. The End of the Line struck me as a film like that, as informative as it is.
I think other filmmakers are realizing that rage and a sense of injustice about a disturbing situation in an environmental film is not as effective as a film that goes at it from all sides and spares no one. Let the audience decide. And they so appreciate a doc that does not tell them what to think. Let the images do the talking, put the camera in a place to most intimately observe.
Allow thoughts to linger and an exchange between the film and audience before racing onto the next bit; let the subject breathe but keep the ideas tight. Try to capture the situation faithfully and allow your own views to be changed by the experience of making the film and what you thought you knew. I think the hope is in how the audience reacts to what you’ve shown them, in this case giant tuna.
My thinking is to make a film that creates compassion for fish and wildlife rather than anger at those destroying it or being led by greed. When someone comes up to me after a screening and says, “Wow, I see these fish in a whole different way, and now I understand what I am eating in bluefin” then you know your work is having a positive impact.
I did not tell anyone to stop eating sushi; I simply revealed the essence of these fish and their situation, according to the best information available. But more than anything, I showed them to be one of the most extraordinary creatures to ever live on our planet — so incredibly evolved but misunderstood, and basically unknown to the public. They are as iconic as elephants and tigers but have been missing from the radar because we can’t see them. We don’t know what they are. I filmed them in slow-motion and up very close for this reason, but the truth is they let us, simply because they wanted a single herring, being so hungry.
The inspiration to tell the story comes from a deep connection with the land and the sea, living in such a small and finite place like PEI, surrounded by the sea. Because it’s so small the changes really stand out in our environment, and I just feel an obligation to speak about what I am seeing based on my own observations as a filmmaker, with no vested commercial interest in tuna, or our forests and streams, but as someone who is here for a brief moment in time, who truly wants to leave the world a better place and believes that with compassion and understanding we can do that if enough people come together as a force with those same feelings. I am lucky to live in a community in PEI where my neighbors share those values and give me support and inspiration to pursue making my films.