Riding the wave

By Shelley Fleming-Wigglesworth
For Points East

What’s it like to go from being an unknown working-class Massachusetts commercial fisherman to a world-renowned reality television star overnight? “Wicked Tuna” captain Dave Marciano, of National Geographic Channel’s top-rated fishing show, knows. And, in a recent interview, the Season-4 winner and fan-favorite fisherman recently opened up about his unlikely journey to fame: life as a commercial fisherman, most memorable catches, close calls at sea, thoughts about the commercial fishing industry as a whole, family life – and more.

GLOUCESTER, MASS.- Captain Dave Marciano calls out for assistance to help keep his bluefin on the line and bring it aboard the Hard Merchandise. (Photo Credit: Pilgrim Films & Television)

The 50-year-old gravelly voiced, sea-weathered captain is well-liked, and well-known for a few things, including a thick Massachusetts accent, his signature shaved head and goatee, strong family values, solid work ethic, being real, and, of course, catching giant bluefin tuna.

Marciano fits the description of an “old salt” perfectly. One would never guess that he grew up in a non-fishing, middle-class family. Though not born into the fishing lifestyle, living close to the ocean in Ipswich and Beverly, Mass., provided him with the opportunity to learn about commercial fishing and try his hand at it at a young age.

“I was pretty much the black sheep of the family,” he said. “I was the only one of the four kids that did not go to college or go into the family insurance business. Instead I started out fishing on the Yankee Fleet [the venerable Gloucester party boat fishing and whale-watching company] doing charter trips while still in high school. After that, I moved on to working on commercial fishing boats in Gloucester.”

In fact, it was while commercial fishing for other fish that he learned to fish for giant bluefin tuna – which is what he does with skill and precision day in and day out, year after year, during the regulated bluefin tuna season. He described his very first tuna catch. “I was fishing with William G. Brown on the Janie B out of Gloucester; I was about 20 years old. We were gillnetting at the time, and when the tuna were around, like all good fishermen do, we took advantage of that. After that first fish, I knew right away I was hooked. I’ve fished for tuna by rod and reel whenever I could after that initial catch, and I’m still doing it today. I never looked back.”

In 1990, Marciano married the love of his life, Nancy, and, shortly after, the two started a family. It was around this time that Marciano decided to “take the plunge” and get his captain’s license and run his own boat.

From 1995-2003, he commercial-fished on his boat, Angelica Joseph (named after his two oldest children) until Jan. 13, 2003, when she sank at Jeffreys Ledge. “Once I sent out the Mayday call and the boat was going down, I remember thinking, ‘I know I may lose the boat, but there is no way we (the crew) wouldn’t get out of it alive.'”

“You have to take safety seriously out there,” he added. “Being as safe as possible is the most important thing. Anything can happen at any time.”

Dave’s next boat, the f/v Hard Merchandise, is a 38-foot Daniels Head solid-fiberglass Novi hull. It is the vessel he still uses today both on and off television.

Marciano explained the meaning behind the boat’s name. “The name Hard Merchandise has a double meaning. The first reason is because the fish I always sell at the auctions are hard, firm and fresh. That’s what the buyers are looking for, the hard merchandise, and we have it – the good stuff that fetches the highest prices. The second reason is kind of a hidden or personal meaning – my daughter Angelica and I are into sci-fi and “Star Wars” books and movies: Hard Merchandise is something Star Wars nerds and book fans who have read the series will understand.”

All three of Marciano’s children – Angelica 23, Joseph 20 and Eva 12 – have fished with him over the years. And it was with his son Joe (one of Dave’s mates on the “Wicked Tuna” show, along with his nephew, Jay Muenzner) that he had a memorable fishing experience that brought in his biggest bluefin to date.

“It was about 10 years ago, and Joe and I were out fishing. Joe was young and small and had to flip over a fish tote and stand on it to reach the reel. We had been marking fish for hours, and chumming – we must have used up 150 pounds of chum – but we couldn’t get anything to take a hook.

“Joe was using jigs and put on a little pollack. He said, ‘That’s gonna get ’em. The next thing I knew, the rod was bent. Joe had hooked up this monster. It was a 1,200-pound fish, and it brought in ten grand. It’s something the two of us will always have as a memory together. And even if we’d got nothing for the fish, it would still be a highlight of my career as a fisherman to have that experience with my son.”

Though he has seen and fished for just about everything in the waters off the East Coast over the decades, there is one fish that the seasoned captain has not yet tried his hand at. “I want to try longlining for swordfish,” he said. “I was all set to go on the Andrea Gayle for one trip years ago when I got a last-minute, year-round offer to fish on the Jennie B, and took that one instead. That was a good thing, because the Andrea Gayle went down in The Perfect Storm of 1991. It’s crazy to think about it: I wouldn’t even be here right now, and neither would my kids, if I did not get that solid other offer to fish on a different boat.”

When asked about his thoughts about the commercial fishing industry as a whole, Dave commented: “The future of offshore fishing isn’t good, but it’s not because of lack of fish – it’s because of all the regulations. We [commercial fishermen] have made all the sacrifices asked of us, and we bit the bullet, but we’ve never gotten rewarded for any of it. The restrictions keep on coming.

“In my opinion, it’s time to regulate the people making the rules in the commercial fishing industry. Going to the extreme with anything messes it all up – whether it is the fishing industry or something else.”

“Tuna fishing alone is not something you can depend on for a living,” he added. “It’s an opportunities-based fishery. The fish are abundant, but the key to being successful is not just knowing when to go out to fish – but when not to go, too.

“The tuna stock itself is actually doing well from that low point back in the 1980s. People who watch the show carefully will see that. The size of the fish we are catching is an indication of how healthy the stock is. From the 30-pound shorts, to the 200-pound keepers, to the 1,000-pound monsters. You see all those size ranges, and it shows the overall healthy biomass of fish. Bluefin tuna fishing has never been better than now.”

When it comes to weighing in on the pros and cons of being an overnight television star and living in the limelight, Marciano said:” I have to be honest: The best thing about being on the show has been the fact that it has opened doors financially. It has provided me and my family with a lot of security. Something we did not always have when I relied solely on commercial fishing for a living. I have opportunities now that I never could have imagined, and offers to fish around the world and experience some incredible things.”

“There have been lots of ups and downs over the years,” wife Nancy added,” but we’re on the right track now, riding the wave we’re on while it lasts. We not rich, but were getting comfortable. Dave had a squeaky pickup truck for years, but, because of the show, we were able get him a new truck. And the boat has a head on it now – no more using the bucket for a toilet.”

“The show has helped to pay for the kids’ college, too, which is awesome,” she added. “For the most part, the fans have been awesome, too. They love Dave and our family. When we took a trip to California, it was a bit crazy to be out on the Pacific Ocean, fishing in the middle of nowhere, and have fans recognizing us and yelling out, “Marciano!”

“There’s another part . . . the hardest part about the sudden fame is probably the lack of privacy and always being watched and in the public eye,” Dave Marciano said. “I wasn’t mentally prepared for that, but don’t get me wrong: People are generally great. They get into the show, and I appreciate that and their support. It’s because of them that I am still here and on the show.”

The witty, personable, down-to-earth fisherman, known for “giving back” to people and causes he believes in, reflected on how fortunate he’s been in life – from surviving a lot of close calls both on land and at sea to catching some very good breaks on land and at sea as well. Marciano has never lost sight of where he came from, and the fans love him for that.

“I think they [the fans] probably like me because I am an average guy everyone can relate to. I wasn’t born into fame – I fell into it. I have my everyday struggles, personal and otherwise, just like everybody else does. I get up, go to work every day, and take care of my family. When I give back to others, it’s because I can do it, and I want to do it, and it’s the right thing to do. I think everyone in working-class America can relate to those things. They [the fans] know I’m being real on-camera and off-camera. You can’t really fake that.”

When it comes to his future, Marciano said he plans to “ride it all out, and take one day at a time.” He will continue on with the Wicked Tuna show as long as the opportunity is there, he says, and is right for him and his family.

He dispelled rumors that he will be getting a new boat any time soon. “I’m going to keep the Hard Merch. She’s a good boat, she’s old, but she’s not going anywhere; I’d like to see her stay in the family. Who knows, maybe one of the kids will want to run her someday.”

He also said he looks forward to spending as much time with his family as he can, whether it’s on the sea or off. “My family is my world. The whole reason I’ve been successful as a fisherman is because of them. Good family support is key. I’ve always had that throughout my life, and I still have it to this day.”

Shelley Fleming-Wigglesworth is a freelance journalist from Maine specializing in at sea stories and maritime and commercial fishing news. She has fished with, and written about, some of the best fishermen in the business, including captains Dave Carraro, Dave Marciano, Tyler McLaughlin, TJ Ott and Bruce Hebert of National Geographic Channel’s “Wicked Tuna” show. Her work appears in “National Fisherman” magazine, “Commercial Fisheries News,” The Maine Lobstermen’s Association newsletter, “Fishery Nation,” “Coastal Angler” magazine and, now, “Points East.”