With a loud whirl, the line shoots out of the reel and the rod doubles over, almost touching the water.
As soon as the first mate, Jason Muenzner of the Hard Merchandise, hears the telltale buzz of the line, he springs to his feet. The calm from a moment before shattered.
From there on in, it’s a fight for every foot. The fish swimming for its life. Muenzner — and the captain Dave Marciano — fishing for a paycheck. Weighing in at more than 600 pounds, bluefin tuna with their torpedo-like aerodynamics are widely considered to be the fiercest fighter in the sea. It can take hours to bring one in, an agonizing game of pulling in the line little by little and then letting the fish run. Meanwhile the captain revs the boat engine trying to keep position on the fish.
It’s a delicate dance that if you play it right can bring in a lot of money.
Every Sunday night, people in 171 countries can sit down and watch this scene and many others as a few tuna men in the Gulf of Maine battle it out with these 400 to 800 pound fish in Wicked Tuna, a reality television show produced by National Geographic.
The show — now in its second season — is a pegged as a competition: who can catch the most and the most impressive bluefins by the end of the fishing season. It plays up the drama between fishing crews and, some say, the prices.
Before the show, most of the captains did not know each other, says Marciano. Marciano is a bit different than the other men on the show, because his boat is a work boat and therefore a bit more rugged than the other boats in the Wicked Tuna fleet. He also docks in a different marina, that he jokingly refers to as “the ghetto” on the show.
“They’re not my people,” Marciano said. “We all knew we were out there, but we had never interacted before … the show kind of threw us into a fishbowl that is Wicked Tuna.”
While there are a half dozen boats on the show, the starring ships, arguably, are FV-Tuna.com, The Pin Wheel, the Bounty Hunter, and the Hard Merchandise. Each ship takes on its own persona. Tuna.com, captained by Dave Carraro, is portrayed as “the best around,” consistently holding the top spot on the scoreboard. The Pin Wheel crew, captained by Tyler McLaughlin, 24, are the at times irritating new kids on the block, determined to not only prove themselves to the old timers but out fish them. The Bounty Hunter, captained by Bill Monte, are the old timers. And the Hard Merchandise is every guys man, the show favorite, garnering more than twice as many “likes” as the other boats on the shows website.
The captains juggle their onshore and offshore relationships. On land, everything is fine. But on the water, they are competitors, even if they are only really competing for bragging rights, as there is no monetary prize associated with catching the most fish on the show.
“The competition keeps us going,” said Carraro. “The truth is if Dave goes out and catches two fish, then I want to go out and catch three.”
On shore, Marciano said Carraro is one of his closest friends on the show.
While the show is not scripted, the reality stars will admit that segments are sometimes recreated and they are encouraged to be talkative.
“They write these stories,” said McLaughlin, who has a larger than life personality on the show. “They kind of give you a little bit of a plot so you can coordinate with the other boats.”
McLaughlin, who was new to the second of the season to the show, made his debut by pulling up alongside Tuna.com, and taunting Carraro. Declaring that he was going to outfish Carraro this season. In the scene, he comes off as a brat, which his sister said is not like him at all.
“They portray him kind of badly,” said his sister Marissa McLaughlin. “He is just really smart, and he is really well behaved. He’s a really hard worker.”
Marciano concedes that the show exaggerates. For years, Muenzner and Marciano would not talk when they hooked up, instead going into “game mode.” Now, they run around the boat yelling about how they have a $10,000 fish on the line.
“That was one of the biggest things we have to learn, because you know it has to be good TV,” said Marciano.
While the thrill of the catch might be dramatized, Marciano’s personality is not. The guy the you see on the TV, is the same guy chain smoking Camels in his car.
How it Changed their Lives
It’s a few days before the start of the 2013 fishing season, and Marciano has gone down to the docks to check on some modifications to the boat. Since the show started, his charter business, which allows everyday people to go fishing on the boat with him, has taken off. So he decided to install a bathroom.
As he walks around the marina, he notices a small group of people watching him. They seem to recognize him, and he realizes they must be fans of the show. By the time they work up the courage to come ask him a couple of questions, he’s ready.
He chats amiably with the tourists, answering their questions about how realistic the show is and what he is planning on doing that day. After talking for about 15 minutes, he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a worm black leather notebook and a sharpie. Opening the notebook, he takes out a picture of himself with a giant tuna and offers to do autographs.
On the other side of the town at Cape Ann Marina, Carraro is posing for pictures.He took a few men out on a cod charter the day before, and they’ve come back for Tuna.com sweatshirts and a picture.
“I have a publicist and a manger now,” said Marciano. “It’s totally weird from that point of view because I’m used to just being working staff. And, now this show happens, and I still feel weird saying that, because I’m just Dave. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun.”
Promoting the show has given the fishermen many opportunities, according to Marciano, who in negotiations with Under Armor about a possible deal. The newness of the show still has not worn off, and he jokes about now he just goes wherever the limo takes him.
Since the show started,Marciano has been gifted nicer fishing equipment by companies hoping to see their label on TV, and has had the opportunity travel to different fishing conventions. Most recently, Marciano was sent to Croatia to promote the upcoming season of the show.
“They treated us like royalty over there,” Marciano said. “I couldn’t even buy myself a cup of coffee.”
On Sunday evenings, Marciano watches “Wicked Tuna” just like his fans do. He enjoys the novelty of seeing himself on T.V.
Most of the cast watches the show. McLaughlin said he was “crying” when he was in Hyannis for the squid fishing season and realized the television in his apartment didn’t have the National Geographic Channel. He says he likes to watch the show not for the ego boost, but to study himself as a fisherman.
The Community Reaction
In the tuna fishing community, the show has become a bit of a joke. They claim the show makes some technical mistakes and fails to convey how much waiting is involved in fishing, accusing the producers of editing footage in a misleading way.
“The fishery is nothing like that,” said tuna researcher Molly Lutcavage.
And environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, accuse the show of glorifying overfishing.
“I think its its hurting the ability of the stock to recover to be catching fish that big. Those are the big spawners,” said Catherine Kilduff. “And I think when the western Atlantic bluefin tuna at such low level those fish need to stay in the water, and there shouldn’t be a reality T.V. show glorifying the catch of fish that big.”
Some people refuse to even watch the show, like Cookie Murray, who has fished for big fish all over the world. He won’t watch it because he is too disgusted by what he views as the inflation of the prices on the show.
“From a fisherman’s perspective, for that fisherman to portray that, that’s an injustice,” he said.
But Eric Stewart, who runs a bait shop and charter business out of Chatham, MA, thinks people need to lighten up about it. He’s friends with Marciano and some of the guys on the show, and while he said the show is riddled with technical errors, he can’t help but like.
“People just need to take it for what it is,” he said. “Entertainment.”