When you run a website about billfishing, and a new TV series is announced about billfishing, chances are you’re going to be interested. Add to that SCMO’s conservation ethic, and the fact that the subject of the new series is one of the more vilified commercial fishing methods out there, and you can bet there’ll be a lot of conversation around the Home Office after the series’ debut.
“Swords: Life On The Line” is a new Discovery Channel reality series created by the same folks who brought us the wildly successful “Deadliest Catch”. It follows the same basic pattern of embedding camera crews with fishing boats as they fish in dangerous conditions – in this case, the longline swordfishery on the Grand Banks off the east coast of the US and Canada. Like the crabbers of the Bering Sea, the stars of the shows are the fishermen manning the boats, and the show attempts to hype the drama and danger of their profession.
When first announced, my concern was that the program would glamorize this kind of ill-advised fishing method. Longlines have been banned in many areas, including here in Southern California, because they are such an indiscriminate form of fishing. With up to 40 miles of baited hooks, anything that might be hungry can fall prey to the lines. That certainly includes the target swordfish, but can also include other billfish, sharks and many other species. That “bycatch” is usually not a marketable commodity and is dumped overboard, thus depleting the resource. In addition, the method is so efficient that the Atlantic swordfish nearly disappeared a decade ago, and only agressive management has brought it back. Thus, anything that popularizes the industry that is threatening the swordfish once again can’t be good.
I had little expectation as I settled in to watch the first episode. Discovery had already demonstrated their ignorance by passing off a picture of a sailfish – a mounted one, no less – as a live swordfish on their website (the picture has been changed, but you can see the original in a Fishing News edition here). Their willingness to artificially ramp up the drama has been well documented on “DC” as has the tacky product placement (do you really think they have Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on Bering Sea crab boats??). I figured that would be the case again with this show, and it didn’t take longer than the opening credits to prove me right.
Most people would be unaware of this particular fishery, had it not been for the ill-fated trip of the fishing boat Andrea Gail in 1991. That trip, documented in the book and movie “The Perfect Storm,” established the fishery as dangerous – and, therefore, fodder for Discovery. Just in case you didn’t make the connection, it was mentioned three different times during the show’s first segment. One of the characters in that drama was Linda Greenlaw, who at the time was running a sister ship to the Andrea Gail. Long retired, she was dragged out of retirement, presumably at the behest of the producers, and given the task of restoring a derelict fishing vessel – all in the name of drama.
The show itself felt derivitive and entirely dismissable. I’m sure that subsequent episodes, when they actually start to catch fish, will bring a little more excitement, but this isn’t really that embraceable a situation – most of the time it’s pretty dull. I’m sure Discovery will do their part to escalate the drama artificially, and have already gotten a few classic moments – my favorite was when Greenlaw’s mechanic declared the engine to be running fine seconds before it catastrophically threw a rod.
If the only issue was that the show was artificial and dull, I could simply dismiss it. But, as I feared, the coverage seems to be very much one-sided, with no attempt made to justify the destructive nature of the fishing they document. At one point a juvenile swordfish was thrown- presumably dead – overboard, while later the narrator discussed the challenges associated with trying to release the many sharks caught – while on the screen two gaffs are sunk into a mako shark, which is left bleeding on the deck. With their focus solely on the fishermen, and the fish and sharks seen as little more than props, I have no reason to believe this skewed perspective will change in subsequent episodes.
The root cause of the problem lies with the producers, who are simply clueless filmmakers hoping to capture that “gotcha” moment when someone gets hurt or goes overboard. But the real blame in my mind lies with the Discovery Channel decision-makers, who ought to know better. They’re the ones who brought us the wonderful “Blue Planet” series that celebrates the richness of the ocean while warning us of the challenges it faces. They also created “Planet Green,” a channel dedicated to preserving the planet. If anyone is not going to get a pass from me on this show, it’s them.
Discovery is clearly aware of the controversial nature of the fishing method they are documenting. The show included a disclaimer that opinions are not necessarily those of the producers, a standard way of dodging responsibility for content. There is also a posting board at the show’s website titled “Talk About The Issues” – issues unnamed, but not unknown, as the postings are running about 10-1 against the fishermen.
It’s unlikely that Discovery will voluntarily make changes to a proven money-making format without outside pressure, and it’s up to us to bring it. Take a moment to tell the folks at Discovery what you think of this new show, and the destructive fishing methods it glorifies. Remind them that once before the fishery was brought to the brink of collapse, and they are only helping it once again be threatened. Explain to them the damage longlines do through bycatch, and the horrific waste it represents. And be sure to tell them that the decisions you make with your consumer dollars will be influenced by the decisions they choose to make – or not.
You can voice your opinion in the forum listed above, or via Discovery’s online contact form. I’ve already aired my opinions with they – now you should, too.