Posted by: powellpjc | January 13, 2011

How to catch a hell of a lot of tuna.

Tuna Fishing. Big Time.

In these western pacific waters where the temperatures are warm, the tuna roam. And where there are tuna, there are men hunting them down. This place, Majuro, Marshall Islands, is tuna central. By that I mean a centre for offloading the catch and re-supplying the fishing boats. They are called ‘tuna clippers’ and whether Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, Philippine or American, the design of the boat is always the same. The catching art is well-matured.

A typical tuna clipper in Majuro lagoon, Marshall Islands.

Here is a standard tuna clipper, this one Taiwanese with a ship’s complement of 34, including officers, fish master and helicopter pilot. A goodly bow and tall observation tower with an otherwise low profile distinguishes the boat’s appearance. A huge net stacked on the aft deck with its overhead hydraulic gantries and the silly-looking ‘skiff’ hauled up on the stern ramp.

Strange and silly looking skiff.

 There are eight such tuna clippers currently doing business here in the Majuro lagoon. Not fishing. They are rafted alongside larger freighters or refrigerator ships offloading their catch or alongside the main wharf taking on stores.

Rafted up to offload 1000 tons of tuna.


I met an American captain of the vessel ‘Cape May’ and he invited me aboard for a tour. Very impressive bridge deck with at least 4 types of radar that I could see. While fishing they are often all fine-tuned to pick up flocks of birds. All manner of communication equipment, including the very same singlesideband radio as I have. The difference being his radio was connected to a voice encryption device. These boys are secretive. Also on the bridge were sonar, various GPS’s and other instruments I did not recognize.

Just some of the telephones and radios.

The captain had a lovely suite with large flat screen TV, a separate bedroom and large washroom. Just outside his suite is a small, private office with at least 5 phones that I counted, including satphone. Off limits for all but the captain. He lives in some splendour. Also on this ship the captain had a mean and beefy fighting dog locked outside on the bridge deck—no riff raff like me allowed. The helicopter pad (not all ships carry a chopper but the ones that do use a Robertson piston machine or a Hughes 500 turbine) is on the roof of the bridge.

The main deck and engine room houses the main engine of 3800 horsepower along with 3 diesel generators for the hotel functions of the ship. Noisy and hot as hell. Impressive tool and repair facilities as well, including a metal lathe. Further aft is the galley and mess hall. Two tables, one for skipper and officers and the other for the workers.

The mess hall with no mess. Unlike mine.

Outside on the main deck is stacked the immense purse-seine net, barrels of fuel and oil and the various accessory boats. These include a ‘speedboat’ type with its 115 horse outboard, 3 or 4 larger wooden skiffs hooked to starboard side and the main skiff hauled up on its skid on the stern.

Below the main deck are the holds for fish, maybe eight, refrigerated rooms.

Ok, so how do you catch tuna fish with this thing?

First of all you must be in the Western Pacific where the waters are warm enough for the big schools of yellowfin tuna. There are tuna in cooler waters but these boats are going for the yellowfins. There are instruments aboard checking salinity, water temperature, depths and I’m sure other gauges for other esoterics. But the good old eyeballs are also important. There are 7 pairs of big-eye binoculars manned high in the observation tower. They are all looking for swarms of feeding birds, debris in the water, schools of dolphins and the different coloured water indicating concentrations of fish. The helicopter is also sent out with an observer searching for similar signs. The chopper pilot and his observer will search ahead of the ship for about a two hour flight. Debris fields are important. This could be a couple of tree branches, seaweed or any old junk that might attract little fishes. Because the little fishes attract bigger fishes. Any appreciable accumulation of junk will draw the helicopter down to hover height where the observer leans out and, with a speargun, attaches a radio-buoy with GPS transmitter. This now becomes an improvised ‘FAD’ or, fish accumulation device. The ship and her company sister ships will have also set out hundreds of other FADs of their own construction, all with an encrypted transmitter sending out its location.  In spite of the huge number of these FADs, I have never seen one. Of course, I didn’t really know what they look like. Now I’ll look a little closer—and cast my fishing line.

Once a school of tuna has been located the large stern skiff is launched off the back end, the net is attached and is paid out from the mother ship. Encirclement of the school is the objective. The net is set in a large circle and as the circle is closed, the fish naturally try to escape out the ever-shrinking opening. Here the speedboat comes into play, charging back and forth to try and wrangle the fishes back into the net. The helicopter, too, buzzes back and forth at wave top trying to scare those fishes into reason. In addition to the noise makers, the skiffs will dump a line of green dye into the water which also acts as an artificial wall for the tuna. Sometimes the school gets clean away. When the circle is complete (on the port side of the mother ship), the skiff releases his end of the net and moves to the starboard side. As the mother ship closes off the bottom of the net, as a drawstring on a purse the tremendous hydraulic forces want to pull the ship into the net. The skiff on the opposite side opposes this pull and helps maintain station. When the net has been cinched tight the fish can no longer swim and thus breathe. They die. The net is raised above water line and the fish are ‘brailed’ aboard. Scooped onto sluiceways on the ship and into the holds. The tuna are not alone. Sometimes the ‘by-catch’ can be a ton or more of other fish—mahi mahi, wahoo and all manner of other pelagics. A few hundred pounds will be earmarked for the ship’s stores and the rest tossed overboard, healthy or not.

The fish are cooled slowly in the water-filled tanks until their body temperature comes down to freezing. Once they are stabilized there, the temperature is then reduced in the brine solution to close to 0 degrees (F).

Pallets of salt for the brine solutions.

 The fish are not handled, or cleaned in any way. When the fish are brought to a cannery, such as the one at Pago Pago, American Samoa, they are slowly brought back up to the temperature the cannery wants and all processing is then completed in the cannery.

The average tuna clipper will have full holds when he has 1,000 tons and will make for a reefer ship to offload. This usually takes place in the protected waters of an atoll lagoon somewhere and Majuro, Marshall Islands is a popular place. Other locations include Kiribati, Kosrae, Pohnpei and islands in the Solomons and Papua, New Guinea. Refueling takes place at sea from a company bunker vessel. Cheaper than buying it ashore.

The full ship’s cargo of tuna is worth $1.5 million and it might take 30-35 days in good conditions—it could be 8 weeks—to gather. So, next time you tuck into a can of ‘chicken of the sea’ you will know how, and from whence, it came.

And this is how they used to catch tuna. A Kiribati sailing canoe in Tarawa.



  1. Pink

    Glad to see your hunkered down in the Marshall Islands. If you need anything give me a shout. (always remember no provincial tax in Alberta, just the fed GST.

    Take care my friend.


  2. never got these postings while traveling myself – lots to catch up on – good to see them now as they contain more news/pics than the emails. I want more Peter pics please.

  3. You most be getting close to Fiji soon?

  4. Hey Pete, Whasup? You okay? Been awhile.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: