Skipjack, seiners, and the sea – Intro

Who's number one?

Who's number one?

Believe it or not, the most popular tuna in the world is not the noble bluefin.  It is not the formidable yellowfin, nor is it the rocket-powered albacore.  Believe it or not, the most popular tuna is in the world is a small, maroon-fleshed bullet of a fish that is not even in the same genus as the aforementioned three musketeers.  I’m speaking, of course, of the humble katsuwonus pelamis – the skipjack tuna.

Um... that'd be me

That would be me

Even though it’s exceedingly rare to encounter skipjack tuna in a white-tablecloth restaurant, and even though you and I will probably never see at skipjack fillets at our local grocery store seafood counter, this fish is king when it comes to tuna sales.  If you were to total up all the tuna yanked out of the oceans in a single year, the majority of that mammoth catch would be composed of skipjack.  So if it’s not in the back kitchens of our restaurants, and it’s not lying atop the crushed ice beds our seafood merchants’ display cases, where is it?

As delicious as skipjack can be — anyone who has had a properly prepared katsuo tataki knows exactly what I mean — the vast majority of the world’s skipjack ends up ignominiously smashed into bits, flash-cooked into oblivion, and sealed in a can.  Canned skipjack tends to be a unpalatable, low-value product that relies on cheap production methods.  If it is to turn a profit, it must be produced in a manner that is excruciatingly effective (just as a thermonuclear strike is an effective way of, say, unclogging a sink drain.)

No escape

Purse seine: circle of death

To this end, skipjack tuna is caught almost exclusively through the use of industrial purse seiners.  A purse seine is a type of net which, like its eponymous accessory, is basically a goodie bag with a closing mechanism.  Purse seine nets are dropped into the water and maneuvered around a school of fish, and then a drawstring is pulled which closes the net and draws it tight around its catch.  The fish are compressed together, and the unfortunate animals along the sides are sliced to ribbons by the taut ropes of the net.  As the catch is hauled out of the water in a tight silvery ball, the seine net literally rains blood.

The main issue that we are facing when it comes to purse seining is the use of something called a fish aggregating device (FAD).  FADs are floating objects that are thrown into the water in order to provide structure and shade in the open ocean.  They can be anything that floats and provides shade — from sophisticated mega-buoys with sonar and radio capabilities to half-rotten doors plucked from garbage heaps behind ramshackle fishing villages.

Nastier than it looks

Fish magnet

Small fish are attracted to FADs, and they in turn attract larger fish, which attract larger fish, and so on.  FADs are popular among purse seiners because they concentrate fish into a small area.  Having all the fish together in one place decreases the amount of effort necessary for a given ship to capture its quarry.

Unfortunately, FADs don’t only attract tuna.  Many other animals are also attracted to the shade and the presence of forage fish.  Because of this, purse seiners that use FADs tend to incur much higher levels of bycatch than their non-FAD counterparts.  Tuna seiners employing FADs regularly haul up immature yellowfin and bigeye tuna, sharks, marine mammals, and other unfortunate animals caught in their nets.  Only the tiniest fraction of these non-target organisms survive the grisly, gore-soaked process of being  caught in a purse seine net.

Industrial purse seiners are causing tremendous problems for the health of the ocean.  Not only is the fishing capacity of these rapacious behemoths beyond the productivity potential of the targeted skipjack populations, but they slaughter hundreds of thousands of other animals in the process through the use of FADs.  If we are to offer some respite to these creatures, we must forbid the use of FADs in the world’s oceans.  To put it simply — this carnage must be stopped.  Unfortunately, this all takes places in the middle of the open ocean, thousands of miles from prying eyes.

Ahoy there

Rainbow warriors

In order convince the relevant policy-making bodies (national governments, international management bodies, etc) that FADs must be banned, we must have thorough documentation of their devastating impact.  With that in mind, the captain and crew of Greenpeace’s Esperanza is plying the waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean in an effort to confront these purse seiners and gather proof of their actions.

And I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to come along.

I will be joining the Esperanza as the on-board campaigner for this tour.  I fly to Tahiti tomorrow to meet the ship, and will be at sea until early December.  The ship is fully internet capable, and I will endeavor to provide regular updates in addition to my standard sushi-related blogging.  So please keep checking back; hopefully I’ll have some good stories for you.

This FAD must end

I haven’t been to sea for any significant length of time for over three years, and I’m a bit nervous… but this is a fantastic opportunity and a worthy cause.  After writing so many blog entries and articles about the plight of the world’s tuna, this is a welcome chance to give my pen a rest and get back in the action.  The battle against FADs is tremendously important, and I’m truly flattered to be given this opportunity to spend some time on the front lines.

I’ll send pictures.

This article continues in a subsequent post.

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Jacqueline Church
Nov 5, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Do be safe my friend. You will be in our thoughts. I can’t wait to hear updates. Great article here explaining purse seining and why it sucks. Good good stuff. I mean your writing not the seining…

Tamara Cameron
Nov 5, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Have a great trip, be safe & send lots of pictures!


[...] Since I am currently on a ship slowly steaming across the vast azure void of the Pacific Ocean, it seems appropriate to discuss an artist that specializes in not only environmental conservation messages, but in a medium that calls our attention to the size and scale of the challenges that have beset our planet. [...]


[...] about Casson’s current mission at sea or the use of FADs, check out his recent blog article, Skipjack, Seiners, and the Sea. Category: Fisheries Management, Profiles & Interviews, Restaurants & Purveyors, [...]


[...] The above post is the continuation of a previous article. [...]



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