Francis Meyrick

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.1-B “Skipjack, Yellowfin, Bigeye, Albacore, Bluefin, etc “

Posted on July 11, 2009

Ch.1-B Skipjack, Yellowfin, Bigeye, Albacore, Bluefin, log fishing, purse seiners, longliners, good pilots and dead trees

A gift from Mother Nature to Man; will Man prove himself worthy?

If you remember from the Introduction, one hapless Irish neophyte tuna pilot on his ‘first trip’ leaned over the rail in puzzlement, asking: “Why is everybody so interested in a dead tree? “
In four words! Because fish live there!
It seems odd at first, but it’s true: fish will ‘adopt’ a passing log, and decide to call it ‘home’ for a while. Often the little dudes like to hide in the roots. This in turn attracts bigger fish. Usually hungry. This in turn attracts… tuna. Before you know what’s happening, you can have 10,20, 50 , or 150 ton or occasionally as much as 300 ton of fish milling around that ol’ dead tree. That is why everybody is so interested. Although the exact reasons why fish congregate around logs in the middle of the Ocean has apparently been the theme of a doctoral thesis of some academic geek, in simple terms I think I am right(ish) when I say that it all starts with the little guys, so-called ‘baitfish’ looking for some kind of shelter and protection (however illusory) from the bigger guys trying to eat them. These bigger guys get a nasty shock when even bigger guys come along gunning for them. The ‘even bigger guys’ are our good friends the Skipjack tuna, Yellowfin tuna, Albacore tuna and the Bigeye tuna. In the nineties’ when I was out there off the waters of Truk, Tarawa, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, etc, etc Skipjack, Albacore and Yellowfin were in plentiful supply. Old sailors were even then commenting on the steady disappearance of BigEye tuna. They were -even then- becoming noticeably rare.

Yellowfin tuna – a simply beautiful fish, and spectacular performer

1) Yellowfin tuna.
As of June 2009, if you check with ‘Wikipedia’, you will see that the Yellowfin is seriously ‘endangered’ so far only in the Mediterranean. However, this warning is also posted:
“Recent studies proved that this species is endangered especially in the Mediterranean sea. This is due to over-fishing serving commercial interests regardless of high concern from the scientific and environmental community. “

“In terms of whether the Yellowfin tuna fishing industry is sustainable, the jury is out. The Audubon’s Seafood Guide (a guide for what types of marine food products are not eco-friendly) lists Yellowfin tuna that have been troll-caught as “OK ” but those that have been long-line caught as ‘Be Careful’……. “

Factors working in favor of the Yellowfin include the fact that this fish is a real wanderer, and roams over vast areas of the world’s oceans. Most people will have heard of the disaster that occurred due to over fishing off the Canadian waters, but remember there that the Canadian species of fish (not tuna) affected the most were not nomadic. They were ‘resident’ in a relatively defined area, and were ruthlessly hunted down. Short term greed, long term loss….
Another factor in favor of the Yellowfin is that many island nations in the Pacific control huge maritime economic zones which consist of prime Yellowfin habitat. Their national income frequently depends heavily on fishing licenses they sell to foreign fishing vessels. The licenses stipulate that ‘observers’ may be placed on the fishing vessels, at the fishing company’s expense. Although I only ever recall an observer onboard ship once (in five years), this is potentially a method which could provide protection to the Yellowfin harvest by scientific monitoring and evaluation of the health of fish stocks.
My understanding is that, today, the observer program is being much more strongly enforced. That is great news for the chances of international cooperation to preserve this amazing creature for future generations.
Factors working against the Yellowfin are human greed and shortsightedness. Yes, there are still plenty of Yellowfin in many parts of the world. But an ever expanding world population propels ever more fishing vessels with evermore hi-tech weaponry. The hope is that responsible industry leaders in the tuna power game will plan for a long term game.
And listen to scientific and academic input…

By the way, you have not lived until you have tasted Yellowfin Shashimi. Freshly caught and sliced yellowfin, dipped in a little sauce…. yummy-yummy; good in your tummy. A tuna pilot will enjoy for free what a customer in Tokio will pay hundreds of dollars for…
I absolutely loved watching Yellowfin tuna from the air. They can move like demented torpedoes through the water, leaping out and splashing the water in a spectacular white cauldron of feeding frenzy. I have described my feelings of awe in the opening chapter One of my novel, “The TunaHunter “.
The Yellowfin will grow to amazing sizes. Seven and eight feet long, and weighing 200 pounds.

2) Skipjack Tuna

The Skipjack Tuna; another fun loving FAST moving rascal

The Skipjack Tuna is aptly named. When they are in the mood, they can hop-skip-fly and romp with the best of them. It is astounding how fast a Skipjack will move through the water when he feels like it. They also like to dart above the surface, sometimes following each other into the air in a virtuoso sequence. They also crash back into the water, collectively causing a brilliant white gash on the surface of the Ocean, visible for many miles away. With maybe up to 50,000 fish whooping it up together at a time, you can imagine what a raucous party they can throw! Fascinating to watch… They grow up to a meter in length (3.3 feet). These are the most prolific tuna in the world today. Nobody that I know of is seriously suggesting that the Skipjack is under threat. Thank goodness. Criticism does often focus however on the ‘by-catch’. The other species and juveniles that are unfortunately caught in the same purse seiner net. In some areas of the world, quite extraordinary efforts are being made to reduce this by-catch. This is to be applauded.

3) The Albacore Tuna

The Albacore Tuna, also called Longfin Tuna or German Bonito

‘Wikipedia’ in June of 2009 makes the following statement:
The National Scientific Committee (NSC) conducts regularly scheduled stock assessments of Pacific albacore. The 2003 stock assessment found the albacore stocks to be at or near record highs. The North and South Pacific albacore stocks are not overfished. The ISC findings are accepted by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and employed in the responsible management of Pacific albacore tuna stocks.
Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Atlantic stocks of albacore. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has not re-assessed Albacore in over 10 years, and the last assessment given (from 1996) was “data deficient “. Other assessments of the North and South Atlantic stocks from the same period showed them to be vulnerable and critically endangered respectively, due to significant population reductions measured through an index of abundance and considering “actual or potential levels of exploitation “.[1] No similar finding was made regarding Pacific albacore, which are believed to be at or near historically high spawning stock levels.
I did find that the Taiwanese and Koreans call these “Skipjack “….!

4) The Big Eye tuna

A beautiful, and highly endangered fish

Pity the Bigeye! This magnificent fish is under threat.
From Wikipedia, in June 2009:
Bigeye tuna are amongst the tuna species most threatened by overfishing. Juvenile bigeye tuna associate closely with floating objects such as logs, buoys and other flotsam, which makes them extremely susceptible to purse seine fishing in conjunction with man-made FADs (Fish Aggregation Devices). Bigeye mature at a later age than other commercially important tuna species such as skipjack and yellowfin tuna, and the removal of large numbers of juvenile bigeye before they reach breeding age is a major concern to fisheries managers, scientists and sport fishermen.

For a really astonishing interview, where the owner of a seafood chain reveals his total ignorance about the status of BigEye tuna stocks, follow this link:

5) The Bluefin Tuna

Alas the poor Bluefin! International support needed urgently!

(From Wikipedia) There are several species of Bluefin tuna. Some of which belong to the colder waters of the Atlantic. Dealing only with the Pacific Bluefin Tuna, these are sadly overfished throughout the world. [3] They are hooked on long lines or illegally netted where they swim, and many young Bluefins are captured before they reproduce. Creating effective fishing policies for Bluefin tuna is difficult because they are highly mobile and swim through the territorial waters of many different nations. Data about their movements and high levels of international cooperation are needed to ensure sustainable Bluefin tuna populations…

This gives you a bit of an overview. Moving along, some general comments.
In the order of the ‘food chain’, the tuna are picking on several orders below them. Their meals range from the tiny anchovy, that maybe only an inch or so long, up to much larger baitfish. A mature Yellowfin or a BigEye is a truly awesome beast with a humongous appetite. I’ve seen them eight feet long, weighing more than one man can lift. Usually they are not that big, but three and four foot yellowfin are quite common. The name Yellowfin is derived from the rows of small dorsal and ventral fins which are an astonishingly bright yellow. This bright color fades quickly after death, and is gone completely by the time refrigeration has taken effect.
The Skipjack is a smaller tuna, much more plentiful, and has a typical mature size of more like two to three feet or so. They have blue markings on them.
Both Yellowfin and Skipjack mix freely together. A lot of catches in the South Pacific I saw were ‘mixed’, with Skipjack/Albacore nearly always outnumbering Yellowfin three and four to one. Occasionally we would catch only Skipjack. It was rare to catch only Yellowfin. When we did, for some reason the Yellowfin were truly huge. I often wondered and worried if we were in fact interrupting a critical spawning event….? On those occasions I often wished that we had a knowledgeable observer on board, with authority to ‘stop’ fishing operations if they were seriously detrimental.
I suspect this is the only way that sustainability of the species can be enforced. It will take knowledge and political will.
And drastic enforcement against illegal poaching.
The Yellowfin is more valuable. The price varied crazily, depending on demand. But in the nineties, if a ton of Skipjack was fetching $1,000 then a ton of Yellowfin was fetching $1,700. But I’ve seen Skipjack down to $500 a ton, and Yellowfin soaring past $2,000. All it takes is a decent war, such as the Sandbox War in Iraq (Round One) and the price goes through the roof…

6) Purse seiners and long-liners

I could spend several pages describing a purse seiner at work, but you would still learn more the first time you saw it happen in reality. Very, very briefly: on the back of the purse seiner, a small boat is riding along piggy-back style. At a signal from the captain, this boat is cast loose. It slides down the ramp and hits the water with a mighty splash. Everybody gets excited, because now there is no going back. The little skiffboat serves as an anchor point for one end of the net.
As the purse seiner continues on, the net plays out off the stern. The purse seiner then steams in a large circle, surrounding the fish. Hopefully. Eventually, the purse seiner ends up back at the skiffboat. Now you have a net sinking down like a curtain around the fish. But still open at the bottom! And there is also a vertical gap behind the purse seiner. Now the winches go to work. The “towline ” starts closing in the vertical gap, and the other cables start slowly closing the bottom of the net. Eventually, the “purse ” is closed, like a bowl if you like, and the fish -if they have condescended to wait around- are caught. Now it’s a matter of taking in the nets, and harvesting the catch.
Depending on how much money the boat owner has spent, this proces can take 25 minutes or 45 minutes. Fancy nets sink faster, and go deeper. More powerful winches are quicker. Better boats steam quicker. Etcetera.
And don’t forget the skill -or not- of the captain. I’ve seen some really impressive screw ups. I’ve seen a skiffboat sink -that was interesting- and cables break. And captains making the circle too small, or way too big. And I’ve seen a captain ram his own skiffboat, killing a Chinese seaman. I thought I was dreaming.

A helicopter pilot will work on a purse seiner as opposed to a ‘longliner’. A longliner is a much smaller boat that trails out long lines behind it, with baited hooks. very long lines. I’ve seen them, and they seemed to be miles long. A rather indiscriminate kind of fishing, that kills anything and everything. The longliners I saw loved the Yellowfin. Each one is handled carefully, packed in dry ice, and rushed off to places like Japan by airfreight. There they are served up as ‘shushimi’ to discerning clients. Prices are -to us- insane. You hear sums like $3,000 up to $10,000 per fish. When I hear those figures, I often wonder how anybody will ever stop poachers when the rewards are so great. I can envisage the last BlueFin being unceremoniously hauled out of the water, and a phalanx of bidders screaming hysterically to own it…
The helicopter pilot’s purse seiner is not set up for the individual “pack ’em in dry ice and treat ’em gently ” modus of operation. Hell, no. Fish are handled, chucked, thumped and kicked in a manner which would outrage a longliner fisherman. A purse seiner is more of a mass fishing process as opposed to the individual treatment of fish that happens on a longliner. The value of a ton of purse seiner fish is therefore on a different scale. Market rates vary according to supply and demand. I’ve seen it as low as $500 a ton and as high as $2,700 a ton. Now do some sums: take an average purse seiner, capable of storing 700 to 1,000 tons of fish, and multiply that by, say, $850. That’s $595,000 to $765,000! The next question you should ask is: how long does it take to catch that much fish?
In other words, how quickly can a purse seiner fill up?

This is, of course, the multi-million dollar question. Ship owners have a real strong interest in this question…
To answer this, here are some figures for you. Today we have bigger ships. However, from December 1995 until May 1996, I served on a ship with a carrying capacity of 700 tons. A Taiwanese ship. We averaged 700 tons a month. At the time, in that locale, that was regarded as a lot. The quickest turnaround was one week (700 ton), and the longest was a frustrating six weeks for 440 ton. On other ships and at other times I have seen as long as three months! That’s not too good, because there is a limit to the amount of time you can successfully store fish in the brine in the holding area, and maintain their condition. The captain I mentioned was Captain Alan, of the Hsieh Feng 707, and with an average of 700 ton a month, he was one of the best in Taiwan. Our best performance in one single month was 1250 ton.
Now do you see where the helicopter comes in! I used to be mesmerized, and wonder how on earth a stupid old fishing boat could afford such an expensive item as a helicopter. The answer is: chickenfeed. No sweat. Peanuts. A good helicopter flown by a good ‘no hassle’ pilot, maintained by a good ‘no hassle’ mechanic, is a tuna ship captain’s dream.
If the pilot uses his eyes and helps find fish… he is positively loved! There have been cases where a fishing company has gone absolutely bananas at the helicopter company for trying to transfer the pilot to another boat.
“Take our pilot? No way! If you take the pilot, you can take the damn chopper away as well! “
And that of course is excellent for a man’s job security!
I speak here from personal experience as well. My company tried to transfer me off a Bell 47 to a Hughes 500 on another boat, the Fairwell 707, as I had a lot of turbine time. The move was abruptly cancelled, and I never had any idea why. It was not until, months later, when I got back to port, that my boss told me the whole story. It seemed my captain had a screaming fit when he heard they wanted to transfer me. He told my company furiously that he would cancel the helicopter contract if I went…

Returning now to the subject of logs, or dead trees floating in the water.
It depends where you go in the world. It even depends on the season. In many areas, so-called ‘log fishing’ is very important. At other times, other places, there are no logs around, and you will be trying to catch ‘travelling Tuna’. Tuna-on-the-March as it were. And boy! Can they move… A third method is to look for porpoises which accompany the tuna. This is more a feature of the Eastern Pacific. South America. For some reason that nobody has been able to explain to me, in the western Pacific Ocean, porpoises do not follow tuna.
You will have grasped a big fundamental when you realize that, regardless of the method being used (logfishing, making a set on ‘travelling tuna’, or looking for porpoises), that finding the quarry is much, much more easily done from the air…
Enter: you, my friend, in your helicopter. And your observer. It might be the captain of the ship, or one of the crew.
Let the games begin!

I have to pause here, because I’m chuckling quietly to myself.
I’m remembering my ‘first tripper’ days. When I was a newbie. A neophyte. A ‘lost landlubber’.
You see, I’m a well meaning sort, terribly clumsy and naive, but basically a good heart. It gets me into all sorts of trouble, let me tell you. Well…. I reckoned I was going to ‘help’ my taciturn Taiwanese observer to find logs. He didn’t seem to like me very much, and I thought I could change that by being a good fellow.
I really meant well… There we were, on one of my early flights, flying along. I knew we were looking for logs. Oh, yes, I had advanced in my knowledge! I couldn’t wait to find one. Eventually:
“LOG! “
I announced it loudly and triumphantly, pointing down at the object of hours and hours of searching. My stone faced Oriental observer lowered his binoculars, and followed my outstretched finger. Hell, I felt good!
The reaction was not quite what I had expected. Instead of pleasure, delight, hell….acknowledgment even.. all I got was this withering look of disgust, followed by total disinterest! He just went back to his binoculars!
Bloody Hell! What was wrong with that one?

My puzzlement was set to continue. A while later he motioned for the helicopter first in a specific direction, and then down to the surface. There we attached a radio bouy (more on that later) (much, much more!) on a small log that was really a miserable, mangy old thing, (nuthin’ like as good as mine…). Then we flew back to the ship.
This was the pattern for many days to come. I almost gave up pointing out logs. He just didn’t take much notice, and I got fed up with that withering look of disgust. I could try ever so hard, and find him the biggest, juiciest, most spectacular looking tree you could imagine, and do you think the git would be pleased?
No, Sir!
Then we would end up plonking the radio buoy on some miserable, maggoty old sapling…
Heck, it was frustrating… Things were not helped by my observer’s sullen refusal to explain anything.
Apparently the two previous pilots had each only lasted two months, and one of them had banned this observer from the cockpit. I was told they had nearly come to blows on the helideck. I was beginning to understand why. I could have cheerfully belted him myself a couple of times! But there are much more satisfying ways of getting revenge….
(One was to occur a few months later, involving beer, a urine bottle, and a unique kneeling position of my observer. And sweet, sweet revenge! But that story must keep until later…)
Tired of the log fiasco, I eventually decided to take the bull by the horns and go and see the captain. This man had been described by previous pilots in the most unflattering terms. He had not much spoken to me. However, when I knocked on his door, with determination in my eyes, and a thirst for knowledge, he mellowed out completely. A pilot who wants to know about how to find fish!!? Apparently, I was a novelty.
In the event, he turned out to be an excellent teacher. He spoke reasonable English, and always had a dictionary at hand. I for my part, was learning Chinese, and I always had a Chinese dictionary at hand. I couldn’t read their letters, but if I pointed to the English word, they would give me the Chinese pronunciation. Soon I learned all kinds of vital Chinese expressions. Like ‘strong wind’, ‘lots of birds’, and ‘I need to turn back for gas’. I also learned ‘I need a beer’, and ‘when is supper?’. Oh, and the Chinese word for ‘psychopath’. (‘Sentin-pjin’) Very important, as I shall explain later.
The captain promised to go up with me, and show me the ropes himself. I was well pleased. Soon my learning curve started to shoot up. It wasn’t the log that mattered so much as, get this, its location. It wasn’t so much that you looked for a log. You looked for ‘foamers’ and ‘breezers’, which are ‘gatherings of fish’ if you like. THEN you looked for a log in the neighborhood, with a good chance (even if the log was several hundred yards away) that it had been ‘adopted’.
Especially if the small baitfish were acting terrified (clinging together in a tight ball), then you knew something was up.
THE NEXT MORNING there was an excellent chance that the tuna would be right beside the log coming up for breakfast!
You could check the fishfinder and see. Lots of fish would turn the scope a bright red. And just before dawn, that is when the ship made its set. Bingo!
Ooooooooooh….well I wish I had known THAT before…
Now I suddenly understood a lot more. I understood why I had received so many dirty looks when I had indicated logs that were drifting miles from anything. Now I understood why we had circled round and round and round some boring old breezer, when there was what I thought was ‘a jolly nice log’ only a few miles back. Now I understood why that ‘scrappy little sapling’ three hundred yards away from that breezer knocked the socks off my ‘juicy goliath’ three miles back.
Well, hell, call me Irish, how was I SUPPOSED to know?
THEN (har-har) came the next flight with my ‘bundle of laughs glad-rags observer’.
We flew along, and my eyes were out on sticks. We flew past some large trees floating about on their own, which I of course (being an expert now) contemptuously ignored. Eventually we ended up at this huge foamer. There were a lot of fish splashing about and making whoopee. But now (har-har) I knew why ‘misery face’ beside me was hanging out the door desperately searching the rough waters for ye old log! And, whilst trying to appear relaxed (musn’t let on…) I was desperate to beat him to it!
In the event, it worked out beautifully. I spotted, on my side, a really nice log. Difficult to see with the rough waves. Besides such a large foamer, it was worth big bucks.
I clicked on the intercom.
“You want log? I see log. “
He looked at me disbelievingly, suspicious.
“Eight meters “, I added, careful not to indicate its position.
That was a big log.
Something in my cocky demeanour registered with my observer.
“Where? ” he said, for the first time deigning to ask the stupid pilot a question pertaining to the finding and catching of fish.
Oh wonders! Oh wow-ee!
I arched my eyebrows as superciliously as I could. A real “My! Haven’t you seen it?? ” look.
Then I pointed out the log.
He just about fell across my lap in his haste to get a look!
(Yes! Yes! Gotcha!)
(double har-har…)

From then on, things changed.
Now I got attention. Respect even. The urge to wring his scrawny little yellow neck or rattle his teeth down his Oriental throat diminished. We started finding lots of fish together. He started occasionally laughing, even being pleasant. I actually started to remotely like the guy. Later still I discovered the reason behind some of his previous hostility. His best friend had been killed in a tuna helicopter crash off the Winfar 636. Akaya understandably hated helicopters, but the captain ordered him to fly….
So who says hunting fish is boring!

Logs come in various shapes and sizes. The best log (apart from being reasonably close to a foamer or a breezer) has a large root system. I suspect it offers small fish more protection, so they hang around longer. More small fish = more hungry predators. It’s best if there is no rope remnant attached. A new rope remnant means some other purse seiner has beaten you to it. An old, frayed, worn rope might not be so bad, as a lot of time has elapsed. So maybe the resident fish population has had a chance to build back up again. But ‘no rope’ is best. Light colored trees are better than dark. (Don’t ask me why)
And generally, the bigger, the wider, and longer… the better.
‘Time of the day’ is important. At the crack of dawn, you will see lots of activity as the tuna come up to feed on the little guys. A log nearby is a good target for a radio buoy. Later on in the day, especially it seems to me if it’s bright and hot, you might see the log, but not the fish. They are deeper down, where its cooler and more pleasant.
If you come upon a log during the day, and it’s bright and hot, keep an eye out for even one tuna splashing out of the water.
Then it’s worth descending, and hovering over the log.
(Don’t autorotate! Especially on a flat calm surface. More on this common fatal accident cause later…)
Have a real good look beside the log. Lots and lots of small baitfish hovering nervously close to the log…. that’s what you’re looking for. They still haven’t recovered from the fright of being hunted by a predator earlier that day. Tuna fish may be about!

The technique -and massive potential dangers- associated with attaching a radio buoy to a log from a helicopter is dealt with later. From the outside though, let me warn you I have done it hundreds and hundreds of times. It mostly went pretty smoothly, except for one famous occasion. And that event came so close to killing me and my captain it wasn’t funny! Later…

I have used some phrases which may confuse new tuna pilots. When we are talking about “log fish “, remember all tuna are nomadic. They travel truly awesome distances around the globe. “Log fish ” therefore have interrupted their circumglobal journey for a few days to rest and feed, and have -for those few days- adopted a log. Tuna at rest, feeding, are so much easier to catch than ‘traveling tunies’ which are actively traveling. They often occur in huge -awesome- quantities, moving very fast. It’s generally a lot more difficult to catch these migrants. I have spent many an hour in quiet amusement, orbiting overhead, watching frustrated captains, one after another, setting their nets. The Tuna would get so used to it, they would just swim down and out. Down and out. Down and out… I’ve seen eighteen successive boats set on the same Tuna. One after the other. With not one single fish being caught…

You will hear people talking about ‘a good log area’ or otherwise.
Where fish are moving, and not resting, I have heard the phrase ‘schoolfish’ area used, or ‘migrant area’.
Now you know what they are talking about.

If you locate an interesting log, your observer will thank you for orbiting with the log on his side. In a Hughes 500, to your right, in other words. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the log, especially if you do not allow for wind effect. You will irritate your observer if you start wandering off. They will simply expect you to perform a nice circle with the log in the centre! There are different techniques for this, and these are also dealt with later.

In conclusion of this chapter, you can see there is more, much more, to a ‘dead tree in the water’ than meets the (first tripper’s) eye!

Francis ‘Moggy’ Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on September 14, 2009, 11:16 am

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