The Toll of Industrial Fishing: One Tuna Fisherman’s Story

© CI/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

This week in the Cook Islands, leaders from 16 nations are convening for the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum, where they are expected to confirm major contributions to the Pacific Oceanscape. To learn more about the importance of this vast marine territory for people, CI cameraman John Martin recently joined a local fisherman on the water.

It is the crack of dawn in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, and I’m standing at the pier waiting to meet up with a local fishing legend, Pupuke Robati. One of the nicest, most soft-spoken and polite people I have ever met, Pupuke has agreed to take me out on his small boat and show me what he knows best: tuna fishing. He’s allowed me to film this experience to demonstrate how local artisanal fishing is done in a traditional, sustainable way.

As I stare at the open, calm sea, craving a double espresso macchiato, Pupuke arrives on his motor scooter. “G’morning mate! Ready to go catch some fish?” I follow him to his blue and orange boat, which he’s baptized Bring It On. I reply with an enthusiastic “Yeah, mate! Let’s do it!”

With my HD Sony EX3 camcorder, dry bag, hat and shades, I quickly jump on board. Pupuke cranks up his motor and we slowly cruise out of the pier towards open ocean. On the horizon, the sun is slowly rising behind the beautiful green mountain peaks of Rarotonga. It is still too dark to start filming.

Years ago, Pupuke used to do nothing but fish. Out on the boat at dawn, back on the pier by 8 a.m. with an average catch of 100 kilograms of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares). The rest of the day would be spent resting and relaxing with his family. “I go out fishing every day, even on Sundays, 365 days a year,” he explains. “My ancestors taught me how to fish. It is a way of life; it is in my blood.”

However, the rise of industrial fishing techniques — and foreign fishing boats — has taken a toll on tuna numbers in the area. Nowadays, in order to make ends meet, Pupuke works a second job as the skipper for a local sport fishing operation.

The winds pick up and Bring It On bobs like a cork around four-foot waves. We can see other fishing boats out in the horizon. Some of them are hand line fishing; others, like Pupuke, use rod and reel.

“Right mate, we’ll try it here,” he says as he cuts the engine and prepares the bait in a very effective traditional fishing technique that his ancestors have used for centuries. Chopped up mackerel he caught the day before gets wrapped in banana leaves, and with a rock used as weight, this ancient-style bait drops to the bottom. Three more of these, and Pupuke casts his baited lines into the indigo waters.

While he trolls, Pupuke tells me his story: “I love fishing so much because I reckon that’s what I am good at. I am a good fisherman because I work hard to get there.” I ask him how the fishing has been in recent months. He tells me that for the past two weeks, he has gone out every morning, fished until noon and caught nothing. “Other fishermen the same. That guy over there…” — he points to a small aluminum boat 300 yards away — “…he is here every day and has not caught a single fish in four weeks!”

As we circle around the floaters with the baited lines he dropped, Pupuke gets a strike and lands a small, beautiful 8-kilogram yellowfin. Luckily I was able to film this moment, as it may very well be the only fish we catch on this day. Very excited, Pupuke turns to me with a smile and says: “I think you brought me luck, mate!” He gets on the radio and reports his catch to his fellow fishermen, and then quickly re-baits his lines and we continue trolling.

A few minutes later he gets another strike and a fish is hooked. Steering the boat with one hand, he fights the fish with the other. “This is a big one!” he yells. He fights this fish for nearly 35 minutes; then the tension in the rod is released and he screams in frustration: “Lost it! Noooo!”

Not giving up, Pupuke prepares another mackerel bait. Meanwhile, I spot a large white vessel approaching the island. Pupuke tells me it is the lead boat in the purse-seiner fleet. “She is heading in to unload what us fisherman can’t catch in our own waters.” I ask him how many tons of fish that boat has likely caught. “At least 10 metric tons, and me, I barely got 8 kilograms today” he remarks with disdain.

As he brings in his lines and steers his boat back to Rarotonga, I quietly sit and listen. “I hear about these long-liners in the Northern Group [Cook Islands north of Rarotonga] and I just know that they shouldn’t be there! What’s there for us tomorrow? When I am out there fishing in my little boat, I feel gutted when I see a long-liner go past. After all, it is our waters, so a foreign long liner makes me angry. If this mother ship is carrying roughly 11 metric tons of tuna, what about the other eight long-liners still out in our seas? We need to save our resources. All the people will suffer for what those boats are doing.”

Thankfully, there is hope. CI is working closely with the government of the Cook Islands and other local partners to establish a 1 million square-kilometer (386,000 square-mile) marine park in the Southern Cook Islands. This will be the world’s largest marine protected area, which aims to not only ensure sustainable fisheries and marine resources, but it could also increase tourism in the Cooks.

As we arrive at port, Pupuke says, “Sorry, mate — I really wanted you to film me catching yellowfin like I used to. It is what I do best.” However, he is very optimistic that the establishment of the Cook Islands Marine Park will soon provide for his son and future generations. “You’ve got to have both practical and academic knowledge together to make it work. That’s what we want to see happen in the marine park.”

As for the small yellowfin he caught earlier this morning? “It’s not even worth trying to sell it, so let’s just sit by the boat and enjoy some sashimi — the freshest you’ll ever have!”

John Martin is CI’s senior video production manager.