• Val Agnew

Thursday Thought: Tuna Sabermetrics



At the beginning of the pandemic I was looking for something to have on the TV in the background. The kind of show that wouldn't pull 100% of my attention, but was engaging enough to keep my brain from wandering off completely. I had already watched every veterinarian show on Disney+ and as a result it recommended a show called Wicked Tuna. I clicked on it, and from that moment was hooked into this world of Bluefin Tuna fishermen. The show is like a mix of Real Housewives, Big Brother, and Survivor combined into one and casted with a ragtag group of mostly dudes who care about nothing but landing 500lb tuna fish at the expense of sleep, safety, friendship, and anything else that may get in their way. I blasted through the entirety of the original and the spinoff, set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in a matter of days.


Why am I writing about this random reality show, you ask? Good question. The newest season recently came to Disney+ and I was catching up and I noticed a couple things. I want to preface this by saying I realize this is a television show and the reality of tuna fishing may be quite different than this depiction. For the sake of this blog, I'm going to assume what I'm seeing is true enough to reality.


The first thing I noticed is that the market is getting more and more difficult. There are more boats catching more fish so the prices are being suppressed. At the same time the amount of fish the boats are allowed to catch is being restricted due to the same problem. So they went from being allowed to catch 3-5 fish in one trip in earlier seasons to now being able to only catch one fish a day. Given that fishing is feast and famine, this is a tough ask and many boats go long stretches without any bites and then might get two on the line at once and have to let one go. Or they get a big fish, but find it's low quality when they get it to the buyer. This is not something that is apparent when the fish is caught.


The second detail I noticed is there is a pretty good amount of data available about fishing for giant Bluefin Tuna. At least a few of the captains keep detailed log books. They mark the coordinates of where they fished, the dates and times, the number of fish they saw on their radar, the bait & tackle they used, and whether they caught and what the fish's stats were. There are also scientists who track fish that get tagged when they are caught at too small of a weight and released back into the wild. This means there is also data about migration patterns.


So I had this random thought as I watched some of these boats really struggle: could you use data to catch more fish? Let's assume for a second that each captain has been keeping a detailed log. Let's also assume that they have access to the scientific migration data. If that were the case, then you could combine those two data sets together and predict with at least some accuracy where the most fish will be on a given day or week in the season. You'll be able to see what tackle is most successful in holding up against hundreds of pounds of torque while still being stealth enough to trick a fish, and you'll see what baits were most attractive and if that changes over time. You can basically isolate any variable and see if there is any pattern.


It is of course possible that there aren't any patterns and the "feel" that the experienced fishermen use is all they can go on. But I don't believe that's totally true. The winningest boat on the show is the FV-Tuna.com. Their captain is religious about filling out and referencing his log book. This says to me that there is at least some connection between recognizing patterns year to year and catching more fish.


My dream scenario would be one of the boats that often struggles at the bottom of the pack tries this out and sees if it makes a meaningful difference for them. It would be like the movie Moneyball and that boat could be the A's (or I guess eventually the Red Sox, which might be more palatable to these Gloucester captains).


So who's gonna hire me to be their data consultant next season? I'm looking at you, Falcon!

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