Champion for Swordfish: Larry Sears

Although he lost his life far too soon, this Nova Scotia fisherman left a lasting legacy—a sustainable swordfish fishery. 

Published May 22, 2015

In Departures we present memories of well-known people—famous or infamous, loved or loathed—who had strong connections to the coast.

Larry Sears was an unusually safety-conscious commercial fisherman, especially about having his crew wearing personal floatation devices. He was wearing one on March 9, 2015, when, clearing a snarl in his lobster-line hauler while fishing in high seas off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, he got tangled in the rope and pulled overboard. During his 64 years, Sears had always given his life freely to the sea. That evening, the sea took it from him.

Sears gave me a week of his life in 2011. During swordfishing season that summer, television documentary producer John Angier and I, along with our camera and sound crew, met Sears and his fishing crew in Shag Harbour and boarded his boat, the Four Ladies. We were doing a series for Public Broadcasting Service called Saving the Ocean about people who have solutions to ocean problems. Sears had a solution to one problem—the depletion of swordfish by overfishing. He caught swordfish by harpoon, a method that is clean (without by-catch) and delivers fresh fish in excellent condition to market. He’d also played a leading role in getting Nova Scotia harpoon-caught swordfish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and sold for a premium price to Whole Foods. We were there to film the whole process.

We’d gotten in touch with Sears for a good reason. Dale Richardson, a fisherman who’d known Sears since they were teenagers, remembers him as a person who was always ready to volunteer, whether helping fellow fishermen or heading up his local harbor authority. But mostly, Sears, “dearly loved fishing.”

“He always felt the swordfish harpoon was the most conservation minded of all fishing gear,” Richardson said, adding that Sears participated in a three-year tagging venture with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, attaching satellite-tracking tags to swordfish. Richardson said that Sears, “always wanted to learn more about the lives and habits of swordfish in order to help preserve them.”

We traveled all night, penetrating more than a hundred miles of black ocean until we reached the northeast tip of Georges Bank. In summer, Georges is alive. Soon we were flanked by groups of leaping dolphins. A rare right whale flagged the sky with its flukes. Sears sent two crewmen aloft to scan the surface for signs of a swordfish resting with its fins out and he helped too, searching from atop the wheelhouse.

Sears set a welcoming tone for me and my crew even though we always seemed to be in someone’s way. Despite the high intensity of the constant—almost super-human—focus required to spot about 20 centimeters of fin in endless ocean, and then to scramble and position the boat exquisitely for a perfect thrust—everyone stayed relaxed. Sears was cool through it all.

As the sun levitated above the horizon, the swordfish began rising, coming to the surface to warm up after hunting squid and fish in the deep. Due to various conservation initiatives that reduced fishing pressure, there are more swordfish now than a decade ago, but they’re far from abundant. Randomly, sometimes after hours and sometimes mere minutes from the last, the cry “swordfish!” would go up.

For such a capable and successful fisherman and skipper, Sears was astonishingly laid back. But he was also astonishingly on his game. He’d shed what didn’t matter and had no machismo, no attitude. He was trying to catch a fish; his style was pure do. Not a word wasted. In fact, hardly a word was spoken. When Sears’s spotter would cry, “swordfish!” and get all excited at the wheel, Sears would say—in the most laconic voice imaginable—“Take ‘er easy; just angle around and come up into the wind a bit; just take ‘er easy.” Then, Sears would scramble to the end of the long striker’s stand affixed to the bow to hoist the harpoon, steadying it as the Four Ladies pitched in the sea. Positioning, timing—everything had to go perfectly for the boat to intercept its prey.

Yet there we were in Sears’s face with cameras and microphones; we even persuaded him to let us put a camera on his harpoon pole. We didn’t foresee a problem since the shaft (with the attached camera) would remain in Sears’s hand, while the harpoon head and line would travel with the fish until it died.

The first few times Sears struck with the harpoon cam there were no problems. He got his fish and we got the shot. But the next day the weather deteriorated and the boat was lurching wildly. Sears’s aim was good and he made a solid strike on his first fish, but the harpoon line became looped around the camera and the harpoon couldn’t detach. He was about to lose a thousand-dollar swordfish and we were about to lose a camera, so John Angier ran to help Sears disentangle the harpoon line. Disaster averted. At least that disaster was averted.

We thought the tangle was a chance event, but the same thing happened with the next fish and we did lose both the fish and the camera.

“At this point, I’m expecting some serious words from the skipper,” reflects Angier when we reminisced about the day. “He was really entitled to under the circumstances. But no; it’s Sears. He’s quiet, he’s calm. He just suggests perhaps we shouldn’t be using a harpoon cam any longer. He wasn’t going to make a big fuss that would get us nowhere.”

That was Sears: cool and classy.

On the overnight steam back to harbor at the end of our trip, Sears and Angier were chatting quietly in the darkened wheelhouse. Sears was quite shy, but he ventured to ask Angier how old he was. Angier said later, “I could see he was worried this might be an impolite question, but he asked anyway.” When Sears heard that Angier had a couple of years on him, Angier related, “I saw a twinkle in his eye and a slight smile on his lips. I felt him thinking that he still had a few more years to go, doing what he so clearly loved.”

Yes, but too few.