‘Wicked Tuna’ star meets Kaua‘i fishermen, scientist eager to resume local ahi research
February 10, 2024, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated February 10, 9:15 AM
Reality television star Dave Marciano – captain of the fishing vessel Hard Merchandise on the long-running National Geographic series “Wicked Tuna” – has spent the last two weeks on a whirlwind tour of Kaua‘i.
The famous fisherman, who visited with his family, was on vacation. However, he was also excited to reignite a long-running initiative between local commercial fishermen and marine biologists – which has all but stopped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of funding.
Throughout the roughly 10-year-old Ahi Satellite Tagging Project, participating fishermen have attached $4,000 pop-up satellite archival tags to freshly caught ahi, which are then returned to the sea in a matter of seconds. Their work resulted in a 2020 research paper that revealed ahi or Pacific yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) in Hawaiian waters travel surprisingly great distances throughout the Pacific Ocean.
“No one knew what the ahi did, because there was no research on the movements of adult ahi from the main Hawaiian Islands on such a scale,” said paper coauthor Dr. Molly Lutcavage, an esteemed tuna researcher who splits her time between Gloucester, Massachusetts and Lāwaʻi. “Despite being so ubiquitous in the Hawaiian culture and economy, there’s still a lot to learn about them.”
Ahi fishermen want to know as much as possible about the species’ movements and population dynamics, to ensure their local fishery – which is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing – continues to be sustainably regulated.
“The best results we get, when it comes to successful fisheries management, is when scientists and fishermen collaborate,” said Marciano, who has spent decades monitoring Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) with Lutcavage.
“I got a high school diploma, but I’ve been going to sea for 300 days a year or better for over four decades,” said Marciano. “I don’t have a PhD. I don’t have a doctorate. I don’t have that technical knowledge a scientist needs to help manage the resource.
“But I have 40 years of experience observing the ecosystem for over 300 days a year. Fishermen like myself and many others out there have something to add to the discussion.”
In 2022, Marciano appeared as a guest speaker at a virtual event presented by Ahi Hub Kaua‘i, another project helmed by Lutcavage. Ahi Hub is examining diversification of the island’s ahi fishery through value-added products and business opportunities like canned goods, organic fertilizer, direct-to-consumer marketplaces and more.
Chef Mark Oyama, who owns Mark’s Place and Contemporary Flavors Catering in Līhuʻe, is one of the local fishermen who brought the tagging program to Kaua‘i. The initiative had originated as tuna-tagging training offered by the nonprofit Pacific Island Fisheries Group in Kona on the Big Island.
“I was very inquisitive when I first met Molly,” Oyama said at a party thrown for Marciano and about 30 other fishermen last weekend. (Family and friends came too: Notable attendees included State Senate President and Kaua‘i native Ron Kouchi, who quietly talked story while clad in slippers and a San Francisco Giants sweater.)
Oyama had – and still has – many questions about the fish, which swims in Hawaiian waters during spring and summer. Why does their average size fluctuate dramatically from year to year? Why do shibi (small ahi) sometimes appear in winter? Where do they all come from, and where do they all go?
“It’s very interesting. There’s still so much more to learn about this fish,” he said. “Fishermen are actually very conscious about what they have … Most aren’t going to overfish. We’re concerned about keeping our fisheries for the future.”
The Marciano clan departed Kaua‘i on Wednesday, blessed by the aloha spirit of the Garden Isle’s tight-knit fishing community.
The local fishermen are more than Marciano’s colleagues: They’re also some of his biggest fans. When not discussing their shared profession, some could not resist taking a selfie or getting an autograph from the avuncular East Coast captain.
“Kaua‘i fishermen tell me they view Dave as the most authentic cast member of ‘Wicked Tuna.’ They understand he has a commercial fishing career,” Lutcavage said. “They feel he’s honest and says what he thinks. They also feel he’s got all the right values, family values and a good work ethic. So they respect him and they really love him.”
Now Lutcavage and her collaborators have to decide next steps, if the Ahi Satellite Tagging Project and a related DNA-sampling program are to continue and perhaps even grow.
“I’d like to get together with fishermen, regroup and talk story,” Lutcavage said. “Over the past week, I’ve met up with a lot of fishermen who didn’t know a whole lot – if anything – about the tagging and DNA sampling, what we’ve learned so far and what we’re capable of potentially doing.”