It’s fitting that Karen Pinchin, author of the hottest new book on bluefin tuna—a fish that once turned Nova Scotia into a tourist hotbed—would also know the best place in Halifax to get sushi. (The secret: It’s actually in Dartmouth.) She strolls into Doraku on a Thursday afternoon like she’s a regular. Which is kind of true: Pinchin made a semi-habit of eating there as she wrote Kings of Their Own Ocean—a book about the trophy species, yes, but also about consumption, human arrogance and its consequences, the value of keystone species and the future of our seas. If that sounds like deep water for a fish tale, it is. But that’s partially Pinchin’s point: That our oceans, ecosystems and ways of living are interlinked in more ways than we know.
“Who wants to read a book about fish?” she asks, rhetorically. “Well, [you] don’t need to care about fish to care about the universal human condition.”
In Kings, Pinchin tells the story of bluefin tuna through the lens of a single fish, Amelia, that was caught three times—on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean—and how her final capture upended decades of assumptions about the species and its management. (For years, bluefin was overfished to the point of endangerment on the assumption that populations on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were wholly separate, when in fact, they are not.) She also wades into the life of Al Anderson, a complicated and larger-than-life Rhode Island angler who tagged more than 60,000 fish in his lifetime and helped ensure the bluefin’s survival.
“For someone who’s trying to organize the world in a certain way to help his life make sense, and then end up having the effect of leaving a permanent mark on the world, like, that’s so cool,” Pinchin tells The Coast. “And that’s far beyond just a fishing story, you know?”
Pinchin hadn’t set out to write a book about tuna. In fact, she was more interested in American eel—a species that had soared in global demand. At the time, she’d been the acquiring non-fiction editor for Goose Lane Editions, an independent book publishing company out of Fredericton, NB. She’d also been freelancing science-based stories with the likes of Hakai, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus. Two things happened: Pinchin’s father died, and she and her husband had a newborn son.
“I felt like the world had just narrowed to the head of a pin,” she says. She took the advice of writer and journalist Jan Wong, who encouraged her to “get out of” Fredericton and apply to Columbia Journalism School. Pinchin did, and got in on a scholarship. Soon, she and her husband were selling their cars, their home, their belongings, and moving to New York City.
“It was a real risk,” Pinchin recalls.
It was at Columbia that Pinchin studied creative non-fiction under the tutelage of Sam Freedman—an author and journalist she describes as “this kind of legendary book-writing professor.” She pitched her idea of a book about eels. “I wanted it to encapsulate all these things of consumption, globalization, climate change—[and] I wanted it to be this big, ambitious book,” she tells The Coast.
Freedman told her to come back with a better idea. That’s when she received a phone call out of the blue: A marine scientist who she’d emailed earlier, Molly Lutcavage, told her about Amelia’s capture in Portugal—and how that changed what scientists knew to be true about both bluefin tuna and our oceans. Lutcavage herself had caught Amelia off the coast of Cape Cod 11 years prior—and told Pinchin that Anderson had tagged Amelia even earlier off the shore of Rhode Island. (“From that day, Amelia’s crossing, its implications, and Al Anderson consumed my spare time,” Pinchin writes in Kings.) It would lead to Pinchin travelling to fish markets in Madrid and Tokyo, searching for bluefin off the coast of Nova Scotia and digging through Anderson’s basement for scraps of his past.
What emerged in Pinchin’s well-tuned journalistic mind was a “wicked problem”: Here is a species that humans have fished—and then overfished—for millennia; one that has birthed an economy worth about $800 million annually, and also a keystone species that serves a critical role in keeping the ocean’s ecosystem in check. (Bluefin are apex predators that will eat squid, mackerel, herring and a whole host of other fish.) It is a food source, a tourism boon (bluefin once brought the likes of Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhardt, Ernest Hemingway and former US president Franklin Roosevelt to Wedgeport, NS), a job provider and a natural marvel all in one. In other words, it’s less of a single thread and more an interwoven knot—“and if you tug on one thread, it’s like all the other threads kind of follow,” Pinchin says. “It’s impossible to kind of extricate [one part] from [the whole].
“Climate is like that, too; it’s interdisciplinary. [But] the idea that, like, let’s just shrug our shoulders and say, ‘We can’t do anything. How can we possibly solve this impossible problem?’ I just don’t think that’s moral or ethical. I think we have a responsibility as reporters to do the hard work, and tell those stories in a way that people can make better choices in their daily life.”
“I think we have a responsibility as reporters to do the hard work, and tell those stories in a way that people can make better choices in their daily life.”
For Pinchin, those choices, in part, involve eating sustainably fished, locally sourced tuna. Fish management done well, she argues, can keep ocean populations healthy, offer low-carbon sources of protein and support local economies. Which brings us back to Doraku: Pinchin has a soft spot for the Dartmouth sushi hub not just for its maguro—Atlantic bluefin tuna—but for where it’s caught:
“When I found out that they’re working with local tuna, it was such a relief, because usually it’s hard to find these transparent relationships [between restaurants and their food sources].”
The bluefin was, for a time, on the path to extinction. As recently as the late aughts, some scientists warned that commercial fishing had depleted Atlantic bluefin populations by 85 to 90%. Pinchin’s chosen field of investigative reporting feels a little like that, too: The industry’s decline has prompted early eulogies in Canada, concerned discussions in the UK’s House of Lords and alarms from the UN about a “dangerous decline in media freedom.” A 2002 Pew research project surveyed 103 newsrooms and concluded that just 1% of stories produced by those outlets were original investigations. Then, there’s the matter of money: The Maritimes are not exactly famous for providing a living wage—nor for holding the attention of the country’s biggest news outlets.
“Being an investigative journalist in Atlantic Canada does feel a little bit like [being] an endangered species,” Pinchin admits.
Still, she deems her chosen home to be the “hugest advantage” when it comes to finding stories. “I’m from Toronto; I’ve lived in Vancouver; I did grad school in New York; I’ve worked in Boston. Big cities are beautiful and wonderful and vibrant, but the lack of attention here by national media on regional issues is, number one, totally their loss—because there’s so many interesting stories. And number two… I think people are just more accessible here; they’re more willing to share their stories. I think there’s a kind of oral history culture here, a kind of yarn-spinning, that benefits us—and this deep connection to the land and the history and the geological memory of this place.”
In recent years, something remarkable has happened: Tuna populations have started to rebound. Like the bluefin, Pinchin, too, has beaten the odds: Kings was named one of the best books in July by Kirkus Reviews, described as a “magnificent”; it has earned equally high praise from the likes of The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and Salon. These days, Pinchin mentors writers in the University of King’s College’s MFA in creative non-fiction program. It feels a long way removed from selling everything and moving to New York. Mere weeks ago, Pinchin celebrated her book’s launch at The Strand Bookstore on Broadway. Last month, Kings debuted in the UK.
“It’s been, frankly, overwhelming,” Pinchin tells The Coast. “When I first saw the physical copy, I felt like I was disassociating from my body. Because writing is such a solitary endeavour. And for years and years, it felt like I was digging a very deep hole that, like, only I and Al and the fish fit into, you know?”
Kings is, indeed, magnificent, not only for Pinchin’s prose—which calls to mind the likes of environmental greats Rachel Carson and John Vaillant—but for her deep reporting instincts, which bring the late Anderson to life through his journal entries, fishing logbooks and conversations with those who knew him. Pinchin is the rare author able to weave scientific studies, personal experience and—above all—empathy into her writing, a departure from the “capital-J Journalism” model of impartiality and objectivity she recalls studying years ago as an undergraduate in Ottawa.
“I think I’ve been working for a couple of years to make my process fundamentally less extractive,” she says. “And it turned out, as a book writer, that's served [me well] to get at meaning, and the deeper human condition.
“Because that's our struggle, right? It’s like, how do you tell the world in a true way? How do you capture everything about it?”
In Kings, Pinchin’s protagonist, Anderson, goes against the grain as the angler who makes a point of releasing his catches back into the ocean. Maybe that, too, is Pinchin’s mark: To leave you hooked for a spell, and then release you back into the world, both the same as you were and utterly different from before.