September - October 2015

A day in the life of a Cape Cod tuna fisherman

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2015 / ,

Writer: Matthew J. Gill / Photographer: Josh Shortsleeve 

Hitting the high seas with Tyler Macallister and the Cynthia C!

Hitting the high seas with Tyler Macallister and the Cynthia C!

Photo by: Josh Shortsleeve

The directions come down from above. “One o’clock—six boats. Twelve o’clock— three boats, two boats . . .” As pilot Dan d’Hedouville spots individual or schools of tuna while circling in the sky above, he radios the fish’s coordinates to the crew aboard the Cynthia C below.

With this information, the ship’s captain, Tyler Macallister, and crew member, Jeff Richardson, spring into action. The boat—built specifically for speed, stealth, and the purpose of catching tuna—is gunned in the direction of the fish: “12 o’clock” signaling dead ahead, “two boats” indicating “at a distance of two boats’ length.”

The pilot’s messages continue: “Twelve o’clock—one boat . . . three quarters of a boat . . . one-half boat . . . ” At this proximity, Macallister has climbed out onto the pulpit, a walkway that extends out from the boat’s bow, allowing him to hover above the water to better see the fish below. It’s a precarious perch, and while he’s out there it’s easy to see why the crew prefers to fish in still waters. The radio crackles again: “Right below you!” Steering at the helm, Richardson keeps the boat as steady as he can, while out on the pulpit, with a fish spied at a depth of four to five feet, Macallister slowly raises his harpoon . . .

A resident of Mattapoisett, Macallister, 47, has been a commercial tuna fisherman since 1985. In his career, he has experienced many amazing days on the water; in July, he caught a fish that weighed about 1,000 pounds—or 680 pounds dressed. The largest tuna he ever brought on board weighed 1,150 pounds and measured 126 inches from head to tail. On the other hand, some days he returns home from work with nothing but a tan.

“You can sit up [in the tower] for hours and see nothing,” Macallister says. “You look at a spot, look away, look back, and the fish are there. It’s what makes me do it. It’s addicting.” In July, Macallister invited a writer and photographer from Cape Cod LIFE to join him on the Cynthia C to observe his team at work on the high seas.

For Macallister, who operates out of Sandwich Marina, tuna season opens on June 1 and runs until the fishery’s annual tuna-catch quota is filled—often in October or November. “It’s all about the weather,” Macallister says. “We go out whenever the wind doesn’t blow.” That translates to about 70 days on the water each year. Generally, the weather stays calm for a maximum of three days in a row, but there are occasional stretches in August when the sun shines and the water remains still for six, seven, eight consecutive days. That’s ideal weather for catching tuna, and Macallister takes advantage, heading out most of those days. Carpe diem!

Hitting the high seas with Tyler Macallister and the Cynthia C!

Photo by: Josh Shortsleeve

Macallister likens tuna fishing to elk or deer hunting. “There’s always that sense of anticipation,” he says. “You’re looking for a disturbance. You know they are around. It’s whether they’re going to come near you, or show themselves.” The captain, who has degrees in biology and marine biology—along with an MBA from UMass Amherst—says tuna are often caught soon after they have fed. To aid in their digestion, the fish often ascend higher in the water column where the water is warmer. After bringing one tuna on board this summer, Richardson, 23, of Mansfield, found four codfish and some herring in its stomach.

In addition to tuna, Macallister and his crew regularly view whales while en route to the fishing grounds to the northeast of Provincetown. They have seen great white sharks as well as makos and threshers, experienced gut-wrenching storms and enjoyed many breathtaking sunsets.

Macallister has also weathered changes in the tuna fishing industry. In local waters, the number of tuna a boat is legally allowed to bring in each day, for example, has fluctuated over the years. In the 1980s, that figure was one fish; in the late 1990s, it was two; today, it’s four. While Macallister says the price of tuna has remained a stable $8 to $9 per pound since he has been fishing, he adds that the value of the Japanese yen has fluctuated—and that affects export prices. This year, Macallister says tuna prices have ranged from $6 to $9 per pound.

Another change that has taken place in the industry is how the fish are caught. Years ago, fishermen would hurl a harpoon with a line attached, and if it stuck, they would follow the fish around for hours—something like the scenario of the barrel scenes depicted in Jaws.

Since the late 1980s, though, Macallister says most local fishermen have been using a more advanced method to catch tuna, and these are not your run of the mill “whaling days” harpoons. At the tip of the 12-foot handheld harpoon is a dart, and connected to the dart is a 120-foot wire that runs through the aluminum harpoon shaft and back to the ship.

When Macallister successfully sticks a tuna—a low percentage but high-yield endeavor—Richardson pushes a button at the helm—and the fish is shocked with an electric current. Sometimes the fish is killed instantly; often it is stunned. Catching the tuna this way, Macallister says, helps prevent a long chase whereby lactic acid can potentially build up in the fish, effectively cooking it—and the fisherman’s chances at a good selling price.

When they’ve got one, Macallister and Richardson work together to bring the fish aboard through the fish door at the boat’s stern. When that weighty task is complete, the day’s success meter spikes because the average tuna they bring in sells for $2,000. Once aboard, the fish is dressed—a not-for-the-faint-of-heart process involving the removal of head, fins and organs. The fish is then filled with ice, wrapped in a blanket and moved out of the sun.

Now, successfully harpooning a tuna is not easy. During one day’s fishing, Macallister unleashed 30 to 40 purposeful heaves, sticking three. “I’m still learning—30 years later,” he says. “Every bunch is different. You try to anticipate what the fish are going to do before they do it.”
Macallister and his crew are very active on social media, regularly posting photos and video of the day’s adventures to the company’s facebook page: A video they shot of a great white last summer generated lots of interest and Macallister was interviewed by a handful of news outlets. This summer, a television production crew set out with the Cynthia C to film material for an upcoming episode. Macallister even has product sponsors, including Salt Life Sunglasses.

Pilot offers a different perspective

Hitting the high seas with Tyler Macallister and the Cynthia C!

Photo by: Josh Shortsleeve

Up above in The Green Hornet, Macallister’s plane, d’Hedouville—the fish-spotting pilot—plays an equally important part in this operation, yet he enjoys an entirely different work experience. What is it like in the plane all day, circling and searching for hours, constantly on the lookout? “It’s very tiresome,” d’Hedouville says, “but if you’re chasing fish around the time goes by pretty quick. I never get tired of seeing a tuna or a school of tuna fish. It’s one of those things that if you didn’t love it, you wouldn’t do it.”

A resident of Falmouth, d’Hedouville has been working with Macallister off and on since 1996 and has been spotting fish professionally since 1989. Circling at a height of 800 to 1,000 feet above the boat, he looks for wakes, disturbances in the water, and flashes of color. He knows the area well because he has worked it for years. Sometimes, he checks out spots where he has found fish in the past; he also scouts locations where recent sightings have taken place. There are no magic spots though, he says. “It’s not an exact science that’s for sure.”

In the plane, d’Hedouville faces different challenges than the crew on the boat. The sun can be a problem when he’s circling, he says. Sometimes he spots a fish, loses it in a blinding glare, and then attempts to locate it again—all while directing the boat, as quickly as he can, where and how far to go.

Like the crew on the boat, the pilot stocks a cooler loaded with food for the day. “I have a small supermarket in my cooler,” he says. “Sandwiches, waters, Diet Cokes. I usually pack a pretty big lunch.” During one recent workday, d’Hedouville says he forgot the cooler in his truck. The fishing crew often works eight-, 10-, or 12-hour days, but on that day, the pilot was fortunate: they only worked for five hours. “Food and me are close friends,” he says. “If I don’t have it I’m in trouble.”

Over the years d’Hedouville has seen a lot from the air. In 1986, he witnessed what he says is a rare sight in Cape Cod Bay: a group of killer whales surrounding a school of tuna. He, too, regularly sees whales and great whites, and he recently saw a shark explode out of the water. “It had just killed a seal and was shaking it,” he says. “It was pretty gruesome.”

Hitting the high seas with Tyler Macallister and the Cynthia C!

Photo by: Josh Shortsleeve

Having observed them for years, d’Hedouville says tuna are fascinating and unpredictable creatures—and difficult to catch. “They don’t just swim in a uniform direction,” he says. “Sometimes they swim in a straight line, sometimes they swim around each other. Sometimes they’re swimming fast, sometimes slow. It’s like they have a personality to them.”

The pilot says his work is exciting—though he tries to remain calm when he spots a fish so he can clearly pass on its location—and he enjoys the team aspect of the job. “It never gets old seeing them slip a fish through the fish door,” he says. “You never know if it’s going to be the best day you’ve ever had. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Back on the Cynthia C, Richardson enjoys the work, too. From driving the boat to dressing the fish—and showing no hesitation in removing any and all fish organs—he takes on every task with aplomb. “I tell everyone, if I had a million dollars this is what I’d be doing,” Richardson says. “Nothing to worry about, no one to [have to] talk to.”

For Macallister and his crew, the days on the water can be long; it takes about 90 minutes just to make the 23-mile journey from the marina to the fishing grounds. That’s a three-hour fishing trip—not including the fishing. During our excursion on July 11, the Cynthia C set out from Sandwich at 7:30 a.m. and returned to dock at just after 10 p.m. The trip was successful, though. The crew caught one fish, which tipped the scales at 270 pounds. The driver of a refrigerator truck met the boat at the dock, weighed the fish, and then drove off with it for delivery.

As the Cape Cod LIFE staff departed, exhausted from a day of observing, Richardson set to work cleaning the boat, and he and the captain confirmed plans for the next day’s outing. The forecast looked good—they would ship out at 6 a.m. “Some days you get nothing,” Macallister says. “Some days you might get four. It all depends on the fish.”

Matthew J. Gill

Matthew Gill is the former editor of Cape Cod LIFE and Cape Cod ART magazines. A graduate of U-Mass Dartmouth, Matthew has worked as a journalist since 2003 and has written on topics ranging from the sinking of Nantucket’s whale ship Essex and the history of the Barnstable-Falmouth Thanksgiving football rivalry, to the Cotuit Rowing Club, Provincetown’s Art’s Dune Tours, and more! A relative newcomer when it comes to the Cape, Matt and his wife Melissa just celebrated a Cape Cod-themed wedding.