While the fisheries of Alaska and New England have had their day on the screen, the new, bingeable Netflix docuseries “Battlefish” — following the men and women on five tuna fishing boats — is the first show to highlight the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest.
Tuna is the new gold. Well, it’s worth its weight in gold anyway; pole-caught albacore tuna is one of the world’s most sustainable wild fisheries, with premium fish on demand for sashimi and high-end canned tuna. And the men and women who catch it are the subject of a new, bingeable Netflix docuseries called, adorably, “Battlefish.”
“Battlefish,” a production of reality powerhouse Pilgrim Media Group (“Dirty Jobs,” “Ghost Hunters,” “American Chopper”) currently streaming on Netflix, follows five tuna fishing boats — the Judy S, the TNT, the Intrepid, the Oppor-tuna-ty and the Ashley Nicole — as they sail in and out of Ilwaco, Washington, on the Washington-Oregon border at the mouth of the Columbia River with their catches. And while the fisheries of Alaska and New England have had their day on the screen, “Battlefish” is the first show to highlight the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest.
“Battlefish” executive producer Mike Nichols is a fishing-show veteran; he also produces the reality show “Wicked Tuna” about bluefin tuna fishermen off the coast of New England.
“On the East Coast, it’s a very generational thing. It’s handed down in the family, and they catch the bug,” Nichols. “It’s not that way out west.” In the Pacific Northwest, Nichols posits, people come tuna fishing from all walks of life, maybe drawn by the primeval lure of the ocean, but certainly because there’s money to be made — like a gold rush, where one’s ability to pull money out of mother nature depends partially on luck and partially on preparedness and method.
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There is something truly bananas about hunting a wily fish in the dangerous waters off the Columbia River Bar, one of the most hazardous spots in the Graveyard of the Pacific, an area of ocean referred to by some as stretching from the Oregon Coast up to Vancouver, so-called because of the thousands of unfortunate shipwrecks buried under its waters. Tuna fishing boats are inherently dangerous anyway, with webs of fishing line, flying fishhooks, and a deck covered in fish blood and ice begging a greenhorn fisherman to slip overboard. Nichols makes sure that the cameramen he hires are ready for the conditions.
“One hundred percent of the camera ops have had time on fishing boats,” he says. “It’s the first thing we ask. Before they come on our show they have to have spent time on boats, in whatever capacity. We’ve learned the hard way — you can get injured, it’s a dangerous environment; plus, if they haven’t, they’re going to get so sick the first day they won’t want to come back.”
For “Battlefish,” Nichols and his crew tried to pick boats that provided both winning crew personalities as well as potentially winning approaches to fishing.
“We met a lot of great fishermen and women,” he says. “As best you can judge these things, you go with boats you think are going to be successful. I know from going through “Wicked Tuna” that if a boat doesn’t catch, it’s tough to watch them week after week, and episode after episode. It’s hard to watch someone not earn a paycheck. You feel for them.”
“Battlefish” highlights the methods employed by the various tuna boats, each of which are completely different: The Judy S is a more traditional tuna boat, staid and steady; the Oppor-tuna-ty is a slick, expensive operation with a high-risk/high-reward ethos and squeaky-clean uniforms; the TNT is manned by a bunch of goofy buddies in the world’s dirtiest T-shirts whose captain is also the sole cast member who comes from a family of fishermen. Tuna fishing boats start the season in the red, owing money for repairs and fuel and salaries, and how much money crews can make depends entirely on how fast they can pull tuna out of the water, one by one, using old-fashioned fish hooks and fishing rods. The show keeps a tuna count so you can keep track of how these guys are doing, and it is as exhilarating to watch the TNT pull hundreds of fish out of the water as it is heartbreaking to watch the Intrepid sometimes flounder around, fishless, as its newbie captain learns his way.
The most endearing thing about these five fishing crews, though, is their ordinariness. These are not reality stars or wannabe actors — these are fishermen and fisherwomen, whose primary concern is doing their job and ending their tuna season with their boats in the black and a paycheck for their families. The GoPro cameras hidden all over the boat were just a little extra gear, and the presence of the camera crew did nothing to hamper their adrenaline, emotions and frequent blue language.
“What’s interesting about these guys is they could have cared less about doing this show,” says Nichols. “A lot of times people jump at the chance. But all of them were like, ‘OK, all right, maybe’. We had to chase a few of them around, especially the [crew of the] TNT. They were like, ‘Ah, we’re too busy fishing.’ And then we talked to them and met them and they said, ‘OK, you can put a camera guy on the boat.’ It made such a difference, they weren’t mugging for the camera. We were fitting into their world, versus them trying to fit into ours.”
This story has corrected to say that “Battlefish” is a production of Pilgrim Media Group, streamed by Netflix. It is not a co-production between Pilgrim and Netflix.