Nat Geo's Controversial New TV Show, Wicked Tuna , Debuts

Nat Geo's new TV Show, Wicked Tuna, aired its first episode last night. The show had come under a lot of pre-airing criticism, including by me on this site. The main criticism: Why would Nat Geo choose to glamorize people who kill a magnificent endangered species -- the giant bluefin tuna -- for money? (Bluefin tuna are not listed as endangered under U.S. law; they are listed endangered on the World Conservation Union's Red List. They're depleted because sushi and sashimi dealers in Japan pay insanely high prices.

Some of the criticism of the show was perhaps a little premature (I wrote my first salvo based on Nat Geo's press release, before I saw the final product), but some was deserved (I wrote my first salvo based on Nat Geo's own press release, after all), and I think the criticism from various corners motivated National Geographic Society to improve the balance of the final product. Nat Geo included a conservation message in the beginning and several conservation cut-aways (including a very brief bit of video with me) and reference to overfishing at several points. And there's more new material on the show's website.

Contrary to worst fears, the show's first episode did not glorify the fishing. Contrary to romanticizing the fishery, I felt, the show can make one feel that this isn't an attractive way to try to turn a profit. These guys are addicted gamblers, gambling on getting a bite, themselves lured into a high-stakes game, and prompted to work even in dangerous weather.

The show made the life look hard, the financial pressure very tense, and the people crass to one another (part of the game involves having highly competitive "colleagues" who don't really like each other, move in on top of one another if the fish are present, and often withhold information or mislead each other if they find fish first). I don't know if the inter-boat and inter-personal rivalries were exaggerated for effect on camera, but I had enough experience in that fishery to know they are real enough.

Having been involved in this kind of stuff in the 1980s and 1990s, it really brought me back; I felt the bodily tension of wanting to get that bite when you see fish on the sonar, and the incredible surge of power when they get on that line. I remember the compulsion to be out there. Though I've killed them myself in years past, I did not like seeing these magnificent fish killed on TV. And I felt very glad that I am no longer involved in any of that.

Overall, the show was better than I'd anticipated. Based on my meetings with National Geographic during February and March, I found the folks there to be remarkably open to criticism. They worked hard to make the show better in the final edit. For future episodes, I've also suggested that they consider finding ways to show a little more of other, worse, ways of catching bluefin tuna that has contributed to their depletion, and -- because images overwhelm words -- to use graphics to show their migrations, their incredible biology and physiology, and population trends. So we'll see if they decide to work some of that into later shows.

So I would say the show presents a realistic portrayal of that slice of the U.S. bluefin tuna fishery. It's the slice that would be the most sustainable, and that is best regulated. It's easy to feel sympathy for these guys and gals.

But there is also a much deeper history here, one that I've been in and around for nearly three decades. Many of the fishermen in this category are not just innocent victims of bad management elsewhere. Many pay dues to a lobbying organization that for over 20 years has fought against the science and scientifically recommended quota reductions (the captains of the big netting boats who founded that lobbying group -- and brought into it so many dues-paying small-timers -- are now all out of business as a result of the consequent depletion). Over these years, their efforts helped allow continued overfishing off North America. And their anti-science lobbying and paid consultants helped reduce the Atlantic tuna commission to a cynical and ineffective political circus. All of this allowed a new round of overfishing in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean to get a firm and corrupt grip. Now it's out of control.

And so -- U.S. fishermen suffer. Ironically, now that the U.S. fishing is more under control, they cry foul. Yes they are victims. But, to a significant extent, they are victims of their own device. Thus my sympathies are tempered. Wicked indeed. Any way you slice it, it's a nasty business.