Skipjack, seiners, and the sea – Week 1: The search

Papeete Harbor

Under a Tahitian cloud

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After enduring a few unfortunate customs snags and transit delays, I finally joined the crew of the Esperanza in Papeete, the commercial center of Tahiti and the capital of French Polynesia, on Saturday, November 7th.

Tahiti is not like the other parts of the Pacific that I’ve visited.  First of all, it’s wealthy.  Its political connections to France (French Polynesia is still dependent territory under French rule) and the resulting subsidies have brought a tremendous amount of money to the island.  As such, being a tourist in Tahiti is not cheap.  I was dropping between eight and ten dollars for a beer.

Still, Papeete is a nice place: the harbor and streets are festooned with ivory tiare flowers, and an incomprehensibly verdant mountain tears its way skyward a stone’s throw from the center of town, providing a heart-melting south Pacific backdrop.

Presidential support is always welcome

Capt. Habib and President Timaru - reunited

The President of French Polynesia, the Honorable Oscar Timaru, stopped by to say hello and to voice his support for Greenpeace and for the campaign.  President Timaru and Captain Madeline Habib, the skipper of the Esperanza, actually spent some time working together on a nuclear campaign in Moruroa in 1995.

After President Timaru left, the Esperanza steamed out of Papeete harbor.  The next few days were spent heading north around the western edge of the Tuamotu Archipelago and then northeast towards the Marquesas Islands.

We’ve now been at sea for one week, and life on board is casual and relaxed.  The crew is experienced and capable, and the captain runs this ship with a steady hand and a positive attitude.

Crusty old FAD from yesteryear

A FAD from yesteryear

On Friday, November 13, we encountered our first FAD.  It was floating in the open sea southwest of the Marquesas, and appeared to be derelict – there was no radio transmitter attached to it, nor were there any markings to suggest ownership or origin.   The FAD itself was basically a makeshift bamboo raft fixed to a nylon rope, which vanished into the depths (it was presumably attached a weight of some kind).  A thick crust of gooseneck barnacles encased the entire FAD; it had clearly been in the water for some time.

The camera team was deployed to investigate and catalog the FAD and the ecosystem that had developed around it.  We counted at least eight different species of fish schooling around it, and that was only what were were able to positively identify.  Seiners are only after one of those species — skipjack tuna.  The other seven would all end up dead, tossed over the side as bycatch.

Wrong place, right time

Wrong place, right time

The FAD had done its job — it had become a sort of floating reef, attracting numerous forage fish as well as several different types of predatory animals.  A few oceanic white-tip sharks haunted the area, skirting the edges in search of an easy meal.  If this FAD were found and fished by a purse seiner, those sharks and everything else around the raft would be caught in the net and killed.

As we continue traveling north towards the Equator, we’ll move into a latitudinal band known as the Doldrums, an area between 5° N and 5°S known for having weak currents and lackluster wind.  This is a preferred target area for skipjack seiners, as they are able to drop FADs with little worry of the devices being carried away by a restless ocean.

More updates as we move onward.

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Nov 17, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Hey Casson. Is Greenpeace cutting loose any of these FADs? Seems that would screw with the bycatchers enough.


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