When I said farewell to my first job in November of the year 1991 I already knew that this new work was one of my dream opportunities for these times. Formerly, I took a course in Fisheries Observer in Cumana around the last June. This job deal with the regulation of tuna fishing in the Eastern Pacific Ocean where the Venezuelan high seas fleet had more than two dozens of purse seiner vessels.
The oceanic trip started on the ship name Jane, a blue and white stylized purse seiner of around 90 meters long and 1300 tons of refrigerated capacity. The most notorious features of the boat are the colorful small chopper with floaters on the ceiling of the main bridge, plus the 20 meters skiff on the stern of the ship that pulls the net of almost two kilometers long and 100 meters depth, which left a black little hill on the deck when this is inside the boat. The target is yellow-fin tuna, skipjack, and occasionally big-eyed tuna.
We depart at the beginning of December, the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) office in Cumana gave you money for the trip, of course, you have your passport ready and clothes for more than two months. However, the seiner with a crew of almost 30 persons had laundry, a big kitchen, a small infirmary and facilities for the whole group. The ocean route navigates in a bumpy week the southern Caribbean Sea until reach Colon in Panama in order to cross the Channel to the Pacific Ocean.
Crossing the Channel is quite an experience; nevertheless, we made it by night. First climbing the four Atlantic gates, sailing the Gatun Lake, finally downing the last four gates near Panama City and see the Bridge of the Americas. The crossing took you 80 kilometers from one side to the other for 9 hours which I enjoyed happily awake. Next, we stay for three days in the city waiting for the helicopter’s crew.
Panama City is a very hot place, in the 1990s was insecure, most of the shops were guard by heavy armed private security, on those days poverty was evident and beggars abundant. However, several places look nice like the old streets and the new modern buildings which turn the city into the present-day XXI century Panama where many Venezuelans work and live today.
When the chopper crew arrived on a flight from Caracas, we retook our Pacific fishing journey, sailing down south to Colombia. By Christmas, we reach Ecuador and the crossing of the Cero latitude, the mid of the world belly. They celebrate this pass with a Cero haircut for everybody. Extra meal and beers abound in the ship but the captain, a Basque named Santi, and the Spanish cook, control liquors. Each day, if we are not fishing, they gave you a beer or two for each crewmember during the Happy Hour. The New Year eve of 1992 was a very good party onboard, even crew members costumes as women or aliens wrapped completely on aluminum foil. Was very funny!
Starting January and reaching Peru offshore, we begun the searching for the massive tuna shoals. Indeed, tuna aggregated on huge groups not counted by individuals, just measured by several tons. Each yellow-fin (Thunnus albacares) is the size of an average person weighing over 150 kg of very good pure proteins. They are migratory species traveling the open seas of all the oceans of the world. The huge shoals prey on other small fishes like mackerels and flying fishes, when they find a massive group of these prey they eat them frenzied, and the water starts to boil with the activity. Sea birds aggregate on such places, billfishes, sharks and even whales and dolphins packs of a hundred individuals.
Therefore, these big marine pelagic fauna aggregations are clearly since even from the space outside our planet. From the ship, using binoculars or naked eyes is possible to detect tuna shoals until ten kilometers. When no tuna shoals are found by this method, the captain sends the chopper. The problem is when the long seine is deployed to capture only tunas, sometimes the companions' fauna is trapped especially spotted and spinner dolphins. In the 1970s and 80s, an alarming killing of dolphins was very concerning, but purse seiner captains developed a maneuver to liberate dolphins. The work of the fishery observer is to document each operation in a friendly environmental manner.
The strategy to capture tuna accompanied by dolphins is to circle the cetaceans with the five or six speedboats of the mother ship. Meanwhile, the purse seiner deploys the skiff, which drags the huge net surrounding in a circular shape all the dolphins on the surface and the tuna in the bottom. Neither the cetaceans jump from the floater line outside the net, neither the tuna dive more than a hundred meters… in the majority of the cases. So, in order to liberate the dolphins, the captain sails backward the ship, this maneuver bends the net in an ellipsis shape. Then, in the extreme tip, several speedboats sink a portion of the upper edge for releasing the cetaceans only.
Every time the purse seiner has to fish tuna associated with dolphins this maneuver has to be repeated. In addition, the observer had to document all the steps, time, and especially dolphins’ mortality. Another task is to register megafauna sightings like sea turtles, whales, and different species of other dolphins. Sometimes, when weeks passed without fishing, crewmembers get angry. For them shorter days, filling the ship is more money in less time.
The operation of loading the tunas to the ship is another dangerous work, sometimes the winch wire of the net could break apart hurting men, or splitting them in half… I always stay away from this machine. On one occasion, I saw a big yellow-fin dropped from the top of the net, hitting the deck, breaking her tail, which formed a pointed tip that hurt badly the leg of one deck man. The captain and I disinfect and sew the open wound.
So, it passes until March sailing and fishing before reach the North of Chile and returning to Galapagos island afterward further Pacific west trying to capture all the necessary tuna to fill the fridge. Reaching the 15th of the month the ship was full, and we navigate to Costa Rica where the fish was sold at the best price.
In Costa Rica, I went from the Pacific coast to San José Airport in order to take a flight to Caracas. Then, to Cumana to receive my first payment. Finally, wait for another trip to the capital or another work…