Tagger Journal Print

written by Bruno Leroy


Members of the cruise: Bruno Leroy, Tony Lewis, Sylvain Caillot, Solomon crew

Starting date: 12 of March 2012

Port of departure: Noro, Solomon Islands, Pacific Ocean

Mission: Tag the maximum number of tunas within the coming weeks


With a big smile and without leaving his seat, the watchman tugged on the rope and the gate to the cannery opened up to let our Toyota pick-up truck in. Over the rusty rooftops, I caught a glimpse of a dried marlin tail tied to the top of the mast of a boat, i.e. the Soltai 105, simply known as the “105”…, the goal of my journey, which had begun the day before in Noumea, going by Brisbane, Honiara, Munda and, finally, arriving in Noro after a 45-minute drive over dirt roads through the primal forest of the island of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands’ northwest province.



“Soltai base”, the cannery (on the left) and the fleet of old pole-and-line vessels in the foreground

1.  “Hey, wantok! Gud to see yu!”

Some of the 30 crewmembers of the “105” were on board, busy with the numerous tasks that had to be done to prepare the ship for the up-coming five-month voyage.  Hands reached out to grab the sacks and ice chests filled with equipment, while I climbed up the somewhat rickety gangway ladder and found myself on the blue grating on the aft deck of this 37-metre-long pole-and-line ship built in 2006 by the Miho Shipyard in Shizuoka, Japan, which now served as the flagship of the SFPL (Soltai Fishing & Processing Limited) fleet.  The sun was already beating down in the early morning and I felt the vibrations of the generators under my feet and breathed in the familiar, yet indescribable, mix of smells that is specific to each ship.


Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tony climb up the final rungs of the metal ladder and disappear through the door of the shipping company’s office. Tony was the organiser, the heart and soul of this adventure - a large-scale project to tag tuna in the central and western Pacific, i.e. three years to catch, tag and release as many tuna as possible in the waters where there is more of this type of fishing than anywhere else on the planet. Easier said than done: ok, more than two million tons of tuna make one big heap but mixed with how many billions tons of water?  Anyway, no more time for philosophy, as there were only about 36 hours left before departure and still dozens of little “details” to be taken care of before casting off. 

Luckily the crew was experienced and our little cupboard, oh sorry, office (3m by 1.45m), had been cleaned and the air conditioner worked! First thing to be done: set up the small network of three computers that would be a vital tool for organising the scientific campaign. The database where the positions of the schools of fish encountered, the length and the species of tuna tagged and the tag numbers would be entered on a daily basis along with lots of other information on how the campaign was going. An “Iridium” satellite phone connected to one of the computers would allow us to send and receive messages just like at home…well, almost.


Next; we had to take all the equipment, which had been stored on land since the end of the previous campaign four months earlier, out of its boxes and check it  …in spite of all the precautions taken, rust and cockroaches had had an effect! A bit of oil, a coat of paint and the four tagging tables were set up on board, two fore and two aft; vinyl tarps were stretched out over the frame and the ruler drawn in black marker on the tarp was checked. Then, on to the next task!


2.  Knock-knock! Someone knocked on the door of our “cupboard”

The crew needed a salary advance in cash before we left port… For 30 people, the amount can be quite high and on small Pacific islands, bank offices do not always have enough cash to give you as much as you need. But this time, it worked! The guys each came in turn to get their money and sign a receipt; we had to make sure our accounts were right if we didn’t want problems with the Finance Office in Noumea! A requirement that is not always easy to meet! Expenditures during a tagging campaign can go from USD $60,000 to fill the boat with fuel (such amounts generally required certified bank checks) to some small change to buy fruit and vegetables at the market. The tagging program has accounts at banks in four countries. Withdrawing cash with a bank card allowed us to get by in countries where we did not have accounts but I will refrain from describing all the juggling we sometimes had to do! And never, ever forget that banks are closed on weekends, OK!


Oh! The food supplies arrived and the all the manpower worked miracles! In 20 minutes, a ton of rice and another ton of canned goods had disappeared into holds of the 105. We would go to the market the next morning before leaving. The Noro market is small and not too well supplied but we did manage to find some fruit and vegetables to tide us over until our next stop. One thing was sure: we would not run out of fish! or more specifically…tuna.

3.  And so it was time to leave

The main engine was humming and after a short religious ceremony led by a priest came the very emotional moment for good-byes and final hugs and kisses. Then we cast off and the boat slowly moved away from the wharf blowing its whistle several times and we noted the time of departure: 9:55 a.m. on 15 March 2010.

After the whirlwind of activity to get ready for departure, we had a little breather, talked or even had a well-deserved nap. After changing his shirt for his favourite green “Island Beauty” t-shirt, which, by the way, had seen better days, Tony put out two troll lines, hoping for a “kingfish” when we went through the pass.  And 10 minutes later, Alu, one of the crew’s fishers, hauled in our future dinner…isn’t life great?


We headed towards Patutiva, located about six hours by boat from Noro in the Morovo Lagoon, south-east of the island of New Georgia. Patutiva is a place where the SFPL’s boats can fish for the bait they need to attract and catch tuna. The shipping company pays “fishing rights” to the villagers who by custom “own” this part of the lagoon.


Alu and the kingfish


The Soltai 105’s “office”

Soltai 105: note the two tagging tables fore and the “office” aft.

During planning for this campaign, we decided to try to tag and release fish in the waters of the PNG province of Milne Bay, at the far end of the western tip of PNG. In order to facilitate dialogue with the inhabitants of the islands where we would have to anchor to fish for bait, we planned to pick up an on-board observer from the PNG Fisheries Department. We picked him up after he got off the small plane that flies to Seghe Airport (just a grass runway), only a few minutes’ boat ride from Patutiva.

4.  At about 5:30 p.m. we cast anchor in 30 metres of water

the 2000-Watt underwater lamps were immerged four or five metres under the surface alongside the ship. As soon as night fell, they attracted bait, e.g. anchovies, sprats, sardines, fusiliers, to mention only the main “forage fish” species that are the key to “live bait” tuna fishing. The crew has already prepared the “bouké ami”, a sort of immense dip net tied on one side to a floating fibreglass boom that was almost as long as the boat.


Preparing the bouke ami for bait fishing


When enough bait fish were circling the lamps, the lamps were gradually turned off until there was just one that was slowly brought in by a skiff skilfully manoeuvred by paddle into the middle of the net. The fish that followed the light were trapped by a net raised suddenly by hand by about 20 men. The size of the net was reduced until it was easy to carefully recover the bait with buckets in order to transfer them into the ship’s wells.

It takes about 300 buckets of baitfish to fill the six wells; that means one to four netfuls over the course of a night depending on how productive the site is and the phase of the moon since the brighter the moon, the fewer the fish the lamps will attract!


Transferring bait into the wells


This time we were lucky and we left Patutiva at about 10:30 p.m. with all the wells filled with anchovies. We headed south-west at 9 knots; a light crosswind gently rocking the boat. When my alarm rang at 5:30 a.m., I felt like I had slid into my berth only five minutes earlier.  I opened the cabin door and went into the day room where Tony was having what must have been his third cup of coffee of the day. With a wide grin, Wakio, the cook, held out a plate of pancakes for me. OK, we couldn’t be softies, day was dawning and the look-outs needed to take their binoculars and get to their positions on the flybridge. From sunrise to sunset, they would observe the ocean over a 180-degree arc to try to detect the slightest sign of a school of tuna. Most often this would be a fairly large group of birds but an object floating on the surface of the water, e.g. tree trunk, lost buoy, could also harbour fish. It was Danny, the fishing master, who would decide if it was worth beginning fish operations and if so, the helmsman would then “ring the bell” and everyone would go to “action stations”!

5.  Anyway, for the moment, it was calm

With my cup in my hand, I climbed up the steps to the aft deck, opened the heavy watertight door and tried to find my flip-flops in the pile at the top of the steps - without spilling my coffee, of course! Going across the upper deck, I went into our office and beat Tony to the finish line to enter the 6 a.m. position in the database logbook, i.e. 09˚30 South and 157˚03 East. The sea was calm and the west-north-westerly wind was about 5 knots. Tony told me that not too many of the baitfish had died overnight and I’m sure he had gone to check on them several times as that guy never sleeps!


Please take off your shoes before coming in!


He showed me his action plan for the next five days, the zones to be prospected and Hei Huti Bay at Pana Tinane island, where we would fish for bait. Fishing at this site was successful in 1991 during the previous regional tuna tagging program. I took advantage of the quiet to put my electronic tags on stand-by: once placed on the fish, the tags would power up at a depth of 10 metres and begin to record the water pressure and the temperatures of the water and fish along with background light levels. They each had to be connected to the computer by USB cable and then I had to click on a few parameters in a special software program. It took less than a minute per tag but there were 80 of them … Knock-knock! It was the chief engineer coming to see if I might have some medicine for his back pain. A few office visits later, “Doctor Bruno” finished with his tags and decided to take a stroll on the deck … It was starting to get hot and the wind on the flybridge was nice. Nothing worth noting in the binoculars. Danny calmly rolled a cigarette and decided to go take a look at the bait fish…


baitsEverything is going well, they are circling…


6.  Suddenly the boat slowed down

I looked up towards the flybridge and one of the lookouts motioned to me that a fish had taken one of the troll lines. I arrived just in time to help hook a mahi-mahi that weighed about 10 kg - perfect for lunch!

We entered PNG waters at about 1 p.m. and a few moments later, the long-awaited sound of the bell woke most of the crew (including me) from our naps. I rushed to get my gloves and voice recorder from the office and then I went to the prow and my tagging table. Of course, Tony was already there, rinsing the deck and the tables with a saltwater hose. The fishers arrived double quick time, with the “old man” shouting after them: “Hey, look lively, naptime is over; oh no, not him, he makes the fish run away! etc., etc.” Laughing, everyone went to their assigned positions (the best fishers in the front), and got their rods from the racks located under the bulwark on either side of the bow. Max, the bait man, waited for the signal from Danny, who was now alone at the helm on the flybridge. Just as I noticed a tree trunk about 50 metres to the left, Max began to launch the bait using his small hand net. Paston did the same at the stern while the boat slowly circled around towards the floating pieced of wood. In total silence, everyone’s eyes turned towards the wake and then a explosion of shouting when the first spout of water appeared, showing that the fish were following the ship taking up bait like Tom Thumb and his white stones … The fish leaped up, allowing us to identify the species, which, this time, were small yellowfin. I dictated the time into my voice recorder and noted the number of the first of the 100 tags stored with their applicators and placed in ascending order on a block of wood at the head of the tagging table. The bait men continued to throw out anchovies while Danny disengaged the engine and let the boat drift forward, curving slightly to port.

Max, the “master bait man”


7.  The water jet ramp was deployed

It was clouding the surface of the water and giving the signal to the fishers to cast their lines, with the chrome and feather lures just touching the surface, exactly like small fish being chased. The first rod quickly bent and Isaac effortlessly lifted the fish up and skilfully passing it over the heads of his crewmates, laid it on Tony’s table. After gauging the small size of the yellowfin, Tony grabbed the first applicator from a block containing the type of tag to be used for fish of less than 38 cm in length. The barbless hook on the lure was easy to remove from the fish’s mouth (most of the time the lure falls out all by itself as soon as the rod is no longer tense) and the fish was quickly placed at the head of the table with the tip of the snout pressed against a cushioned stop. The length was measured from the upper jaw to the fork in the tail and the tag applicator inserted at 45˚ right under the second dorsal fin. When the applicator was pulled out, the nylon tag head remained stuck under the fin. He just had to note the species and the size on the voice recorder and the tagged fish was released into the water less than 10 seconds after it had been laid on the table.


Tony releases a small tagged yellowfin back into the water.


It was then my turn to get a wriggling yellowfin on my table. Then more fish arrived steadily, one after the other, for a few minutes. There were a few skipjack and then it was over. The school around the floating piece of wood must have been small and we quickly decided to sail on. I recorded the time and the number of the final tag that had gone into the water. This episode had lasted less than 15 minutes and between the four tables, about 100 fish had been tagged.


This 49-cm skipjack had just been tagged


After rinsing the cotton gloves used to handle the fish, the “taggers” had to transcribe the information from the voice recorder onto paper and then enter the information into the database. Each one had an audio headset and sat down alone in the office or somewhere on the boat to listen to their own voices: skipjack, 38…yellowfin, 45, etc. Sometimes, a mistake in handling the recorder or even a slap of the tail of the fish when you bent over stopped or paused the machines, which hung around our necks in waterproof cases. Of course, certain people do not lose any opportunity to make fun of the unlucky tagger: depending on the amount of time it took to realise the problem and the intensity of the work at that moment, one to several dozen tags would not have any fish associated with them. So, then we had to extrapolate this information by looking at the mean sizes and the frequency of the species released.

When you know what you are doing, it only takes about 20 minutes to enter information from 50 tags into the database.

8.  Ding, ding, ding ! Just in time!

I threw the entry sheet onto the pile under the desk and grabbed my gloves as I climbed the steps to the flybridge. The helmsman, with his two hands out like wings, showed me that they had spotted birds. Borrowing some binoculars, I saw a good flock made up of frigate birds, terns and noddies circling and diving about four or five miles in front of the prow. “You have time to go make a cup of coffee, Nic!” said Tony, who was just behind me…Ok, suggestion accepted…


Approaching a school of tuna


A half-hour later, we once again went to action and that time, more seriously. The fish came in quickly accompanied by the shouting of the fishers, who were trying to bring in good-sized fish. Yellowfin and some skipjack weighing 5 or 6 kg each landed non-stop on the tagging tables, one after the other.





Suddenly one of the “grabbers”, who are in charge of grabbing the fish and laying them on the tables, began yelling, “Bigeye!” I looked at the fish that Eritai was holding against his apron and I began pulling off my gloves while, at the same time, telling my voice recorder that I was stopping regular tagging at tag no. x in order to try to put an archival tag on a bigeye tuna.



Inserting an archival tag


Eritai laid the fish on the special table located in the middle of the foc'sle deck and I quickly covered its eyes with a piece of wet synthetic chamois. The fish stopped moving and I began to make an incision of about two cm in the stomach using a scalpel. Through that opening I inserted an electronic tag into the tuna’s abdominal cavity, allowing the antenna with the light and water temperature sensors to hang outside.  I then closed the incision with two stitches and put a conventional red tag on its back. Carefully lifting the fish, whose eyes were still shaded from the light, I released it over the side and watched it disappear into the blue. It swam away fast so everything looked OK!

I recorded the time and then went back to regular tagging. When all the commotion had died down, about 45 minutes after work had begun, everyone was covered in scales and the lower deck was filled with fish too badly hurt to be tagged. “Maybe 900 tags this time,” said Tony, who has a calculator instead of a brain …


This time, before entering the data, we had to take samples from about 30 dead fish. This meant removing their stomachs so the contents could be analysed later in a laboratory (which makes it possible to study predator/prey interaction), and a piece of flesh and liver, which would serve to determine the animal’s position in the food chain. Each piece was placed in a plastic bag and marked with reference info so that later it would be possible to find out which school the sample fish had come from. Then everything was put in a freezer and the data entered into the databases. We had scarcely finished and were just beginning to enter the tagging data when: Ding ding ding !! Let’s go, let’s go, it’s the fish who give the orders around here!


Taking biological samples


To be continued…