It may seem odd that in a helicopter magazine, we are going to talk about fishing. Not with nylon and hook, but with helicopters. Behind the tuna we buy in supermarkets, helicopters are critical to getting tuna from the sea to the table. And for those who love the sea and its marine life, this job is a perfect adventure.
Since tuna is such a popular food worldwide and commands a high price, the use of expensive helicopters is cost effective for commercial tuna boats that use large nets called purse seines. Helicopters are extremely useful for spotting tuna, since these fish gather in large schools or shoals to cooperatively hunt vast areas for smaller fish prey. Helicopters takeoff early in the morning and fly long hours before parking on the ship overnight. R-22, R-44, B206, and MD500 are the most commonly used helicopters for this type of fishing.
It’s not unusual for pilots with relatively few hours of flying time to join tuna operations. These jobs allow pilots to accumulate hours quickly, earn a decent paycheck, and work with fishing crew members from around the world while visiting exotic ports of call. It’s a bold alternative to the common practice of starting a career as a flight instructor.
Flying on the open sea has numerous challenges, however.. In addition to austere living conditions and being away from home for possibly months at a time, taking off and landing from a moving platform adds a risky dimension that most pilots never face. High waves and tiny landing pads (which are not always designed for helicopter operations) make it difficult to land on the ship. Those who stick with it will gain a level of flying precision that few jobs can offer.
The Art of the Catch
The pilot and the observer take advantage of the helicopter’s speed and altitude to locate signs of tuna shoals.
Helicopter crews use a variety of methods to find clues about the locations of tuna shoals. In the “breeze” method, for example, they seek out spots where it looks like the sea is boiling. That’s a sign of a shoal continuously moving in the same direction as the wind. When the fish are eating at the sea surface, a large area of the water’s surface will look like it’s foaming. Tuna fisherman refer to this as a “foamer.”
In the “log” method, crews seek out groups of wooden logs drifting in the ocean. Tuna seem to be attracted to these small ecosystems. Dolphins also can be a sign that shoals are nearby because tuna sometimes hang out with them during the day. This is more common in the Eastern Pacific near the Americas than in the Western Pacific, according to tuna boat helicopter pilot Alexander Vivaldi.
Other methods involve luring the tuna shoals. In “planting,” fishermen create artificial ecosystems by stringing together bamboo, net and underwater baits, then letting them float in the open sea. Crews attach satellite buoys to these planted ecosystems so the ships can monitor their positions and return to check on growing tuna populations. And bird radars installed on the ships locate the position of large flocks of seabirds since they tend to follow tuna toward smaller prey fish.
Once the helicopter crew locates a tuna shoal, the observer calculates whether the shoal is big enough to call in the fishing boat. If the answer is yes, the pilot might have to hover over the fish for an hour or more while waiting for the ship. If the fish are schooling near a log, the spotter might use a speargun to drop a GPS buoy on the wood so the ship can hone in on it.
When the ship arrives it launches small, powerful boats called “pangas” armed with large nets. Once a net is deployed around the tuna shoal, the ship starts to close the net. At the same time, the helicopter and speedboats are coordinated from the overlook in the ship in an effort to herd the fish like cattle, preventing them from escaping the net until it’s completely closed.
Once the net is closed, the helicopter lands and the fish retrieval phase begins. Fish are extracted from the sea and placed in special compartments in the ship’s vats where cold seawater is kept at approximately -3 degrees C (27 degrees F). When the fish get into this cold water they immediately die, but are preserved in order to maintain freshness. Tuna ships have up to a 1,000-ton capacity and generally do not head back to port until fully loaded.
Fishing seasons typically last from two weeks to a little more than two months. Ships in the Western Pacific can be filled in days, while it generally takes much longer in the Eastern Pacific, Vivaldi said. And a helicopter crew might have to fulfill a year-long contract before returning home.
When talking about tuna fishing ops we tend to focus on the most glamorous part: the helicopters and their pilots. However, maintenance and technicians really keep the operation running smoothly. To be completely honest, aircraft technicians are at the heart of operations in the entire aviation world, but I digress. Even in this extremely tough environment, they must have all the tools and spare parts to perform routine as well as complex repairs onboard ship.
The helicopters clock around 250-300 hours each time fleets go to sea. So technicians have a difficult job keeping up with scheduled inspections, let alone unscheduled maintenance that can occur unexpectedly at any time. Vivaldi reflected on one extremely challenging repair when he and his technician Joel Navas had to replace a helicopter swashplate on their MD500D while in high seas. In an unforgiving outdoor environment the job can turn from somewhat normal to highly difficult in a short period of time. Maintenance technicians in this setting need to be both competent and resourceful to avoid wasting time or resources.
International laws protect fish. Each commercial ship is required to have a biologist onboard, whose duty is to certify that the fishing process does not jeopardize other species, especially endangered ones. These biologists certify that caught fish are big enough to be lawfully harvested, too.
The biologists also gather data to establish statistics, develop studies of migratory movements, and help coordinate fishing seasons that vary based on ship capacity and country of origin.
Love of the Sea
Many rotorcraft pros who fly and work at sea do it for their combined love of the open sea and passion for aviation. Others do it more for the hours or pay, and some are pursuing their dreams of writing their own adventure stories. While these hardworking pilots earn my respect and admiration, my highest respect goes to those many souls claimed by the treacherous sea.