Book explores fate of giant fish

MIDDLEBURY — Matt Rigney developed a passion for fishing during many years of solitary angling in a small boat off the coast of Maine.
Along with the thrill of catching some hefty bluefish, striped bass and other species, Rigney learned about what he called the “power of solitude, about what you see when you sit quietly and observe nature.”
But “National Geographic” in 2007 published a series of articles about overfishing and the rapid decline of the oceans’ great fish that doused Rigney’s idyllic vision about the sea and its fabled bounty. He decided to find out some answers for himself, so he set sail on a four-year voyage to some of the world’s busiest and most exotic fishing locations to determine why the numbers of the world’s biggest fish — marlin, bluefin tuna and swordfish — continue to decline in size and numbers.
His alarming findings are contained in his book, titled “In Pursuit of Giants: One Man’s Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish.”
Rigney, a grant writer and program writer in the education field who now lives in western Massachusetts, was at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on Oct. 24 to introduce his new book and explain the considerable research that went into it. He presented images and video of his ports of call, which included Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; the Northeast Peak of Georges Bank, in Canada; Oma and Tokyo, Japan; Malta; Lizard Island and Port Lincoln in Australia; and New Zealand.
And we’re not talking about pleasure cruises aboard ostentatious fishing yachts.
Rigney scraped together enough money from an advance on his book and raided his own bank account to finance a bare-bones odyssey during which he was on occasion granted free passage on vessels in exchange for lending a hand. This included a job spotting fish off the coast of New Zealand and a very eventful trip with some Greenpeacers in the Mediterranean.
It wasn’t easy, but Rigney was very motivated.
“I read those (National Geographic) articles and was so outraged after starting them that I couldn’t finish them in one sitting,” Rigney recalled. “I was outraged.”
He channeled that outrage into his own research project that he originally thought would be condensed into a magazine article that would pose, as a central question, “What would Hemingway do?” Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s most celebrated writers, had a man-versus-beast theme to several of his stories, including “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Rigney noted that except for bulls and sharks, Hemingway had a reverence for wildlife. Rigney was curious about how Hemingway would react to the current decline in the numbers of big fish and whether he would take an environmentalist’s point of view in this, the 21st century.
But Rigney and his literary advisors soon realized that there was more material than could be covered in a magazine article. So Rigney spent seven months firming up a draft proposal for “In Pursuit of Giants.” Viking Penguin agreed to publish the book, and the author was ready to set sail.
“I started setting up trips and identifying locations where I could really target the three largest fish in the ocean — marlin, bluefin tuna and swordfish,” Rigney said. “They were the (species) whose numbers had declined most precipitously.”
During his travels, Rigney sought to reconcile perspectives among three major stakeholders in the industry: scientists, who were saying the fish were being hunted and consumed into oblivion; commercial fishermen, who were saying they remained in abundance; and sports anglers, who were content to stay out of the argument so long as they could keep fishing.
“For my own purposes, I needed to know and convince myself I knew the truth about what had been happening (to the fish),” Rigney said. “So I went on this global odyssey to meet the right people and get on the right boats to tell an interesting story.”
He credited the Internet for helping him greatly in his research and legwork. He was able to find a lot of helpful documents and was able to interact nimbly with other authors. He was also able to book passage — sometimes at a moment’s notice — on boats for his voyages. He joined commercial and recreational fishermen, marine biologists, fish farming pioneers and activists to explore the causes of the decline in fish numbers.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this book 10 years ago,” Rigney said. “I could really move the project when I had to.”
During his time in the field, Rigney, among other adventures, inspected tuna ranches in Australia, went along with a swordfish harpooning team off the coast of Nova Scotia and cast some lines with bluefin fishermen off the coast of Japan.
He returned home convinced that the world’s big fish are being hunted to near extinction to sate the hunger of an exploding world population. Rigney said most commercial fishermen are not using restraint, but are instead using the technology of the day — including much wider nets — to capture fish in unprecedented numbers.
“There are two central fallacies around which governments and businesses/corporations have operated in relation to the sea,” Rigney said. “The first is that (the sea) will provide endlessly … The second is the ‘industrial fallacy,’ the idea that the application of more powerful technologies as an answer to the problems of market competitiveness, increased population, decreased fish stocks and the perpetual demand for profits is inevitable and without alternative leads to better living, and can happen without real consequences to the natural world.”
Rigney’s book can be found locally at the Vermont Book Shop and through www.inpursuitofgiants.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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