It's tough out there. On the northern Atlantic, where a single bluefin tuna can bring in as much as $20,000, fishermen out of Gloucester, Mass., will try to catch all they can. But the competition is intense, and biologists warn that if they catch too much they could actually help crash the tuna population and put themselves out of business.
It's a complicated world they face, and the National Geographic Channel (a content partner of ABC News) is starting a 10-part series about it called "Wicked Tuna," beginning Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
"I do harpoon fishing, and it's a lot of pressure," said Kevin Leonowert, a fisherman interviewed by National Geographic. "You've got the weight of the world on your shoulders. Everybody on the boat sees that fish, but you're the one who has to get it. If you don't make the hit, it's all wasted."
Gloucester is one of America's oldest and most storied fishing ports, with a statue in the harbor that pays tribute to "They that go down to the sea in ships.... These see the works of the Lord." The passage is from Psalm 107.
The crews of the five fishing boats profiled by National Geographic are a bit more prosaic: Dave Marciano, who pilots a boat called Hard Merchandise, says, "It's all about paying the rent, paying the mortgage, paying the bills and keeping clothes on the kids' backs. It's a paycheck. Period."
It's a hard way to make a living. The fishermen do most of their work on the heaving swells of the Atlantic. They face economic and environmental pressures, and face danger as well. If you remember "The Perfect Storm," Sebastian Junger's 1997 book which was followed by a film with George Clooney, that was about a doomed fishing boat from Gloucester.
Complicating it all is that bluefin are prized as a delicacy in Japan, and fishing fleets from other countries are allowed to use larger nets or longer fishing lines to bring in their catch. The result: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says bluefin tuna stocks off the Atlantic coast are probably a third of what they were in 1970.
"And there's a lot of money at stake," said Leonowert. "I've got a wife at home to support, and two guys on the boat who need to get paid, and the spotter pilot who's looking to get paid, too."
The captains say they can make two big catches in a few hours, or go for days with no tuna even nibbling at their lines. So they are out there, whenever the seas allow, prowling the waters, hoping to bring home a profit.
"This is what I do," said Marciano. "This is what I'm gonna do until they pry my cold, dead hands off the wheel."