Poaching Tuna (Jan 30)

No, I don’t mean in the kitchen. The last few days the Captain has taken to doing an early morning flight, just before the sun comes up over the horizon, not that it has done us any good so far. The tuna schools don’t seem to break the surface until the sun is well up in the sky and the surface temperature of the water has started to come up. Well today we had a few more things to look at while flying. Four other tuna fishing boats were nearby, so we went to have a look.

Two of the boats were from the same company as the boat I’m on, one of them was a brand new ship – massive, looked very nice. The other two boats were from the same, different, company from ours but we were all working the same area. 5 boats, 2 helicopters, and a lot of tuna. We scouted school after school, making circles above them while the Captain estimated the size and type of the tuna under the water, and then I spotted a school frothing up the water in the distance.

I keyed my mic, something I rarely do but I felt the Captain would want to see this, and told him to look in the direction I was pointing. He laughed and waved his hand toward my school and so we took off and flew towards it – he saw the potential in it that I had seen as well. There was one problem, one of the competitions fishing boats was steaming toward the school, and based on the speed and direction of the boat – with the deliberate course corrections and turns – it was obvious they had seen the same school and were meaning to set on it. They would clearly beat the Jupiter to the school, she was still almost 30 minutes away.

The Captain asked me to keep circling while the “enemy” boat made its set. We descended down to 700 feet above the water and made circles over the boat, waiting for it all to kick off. Then, without any warning, the skiff on the back of this boat fell off of the back and into the water, dragging out the net with it – they’d begun their set.

Watching it from the air really makes for an impressive show, the yellow buoys lining the top of the net cable string out in a line behind the purse seiner and slowly but surely the two boats, connected by the net, bring both ends around and form a closed circle. We watched as this boat launched its speed boat and its net boat to chase tuna into the net, and of course we watched the tuna.

The school was massive in my eyes, in addition to the large amount that were foaming across the surface you could see down into the clear blue water and see the large school moving and turning as one organism. Every time they banked left or right their scales would catch the sun and glint back at me like a mirror reflecting light. Beyond the large, swimming, moving body of fish there were also two spirals of tuna, it looked like they had formed columns under the water that were rotating downward as the fish fed on the smaller bait fish in the column.

They massed and surged toward the net, and you could see it bulge out under the water. They turned and ran the other way, the other way being toward the opening in the net because the two boats had yet to complete their circle. My Captain had the other ships frequency programmed in and was listening intently to everything going on below – since I don’t know any Korean all I could do was infer how things were going based on tone. And it didn’t sound good.

The other Captain began screaming and yelling into his radio sending his speed boat and net tender after the school that was making a run for it, and then the sound of resignation and disappointment, a heavy sigh on the radio between his Korean mumbling. He sounded defeated. Then the school turned! The yelling began again, screaming excited, rapid fire directions to the two boats, trying to drive the fish back into the net, and then they turned again. That same defeated tone and loud sigh on the radio again. This time the fish did not go back into the net – this boat would be at least an hour or two reeling its now empty net back into a neat stack.

That’s when my Captain pointed back toward our ship, “Ok landing.” he said, while using his hand to simulate a helicopter descending. He radioed back to our ship and told the crew to stand ready – we were going to poach this school from these guys. They Chief Engineer opened up the throttle, and as we cam up on the Jupiter I could see it breaking through the ocean, spray flashing across the bow as the water was sliced by the bow.

We caught part of the school, the other half escaped out of our net as well – making them the luckiest tuna on the planet, having escaped two sets in less than two hours.

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