What is it like working on a tuna handline boat? | WWF
What is it like working on a tuna handline boat?

Posted on 12 March 2013

Joining fishers on a handline boat for several days is far from what it’s like on board a cruise ship or enjoying a live-aboard accommodation. Jingles shares what one needs to expect on board these boats.
When my friends learned that I was going out to sea to tag tunas, everyone was envious, imagining that I will be in clear blue skies, crystal clear cool ocean waters, watching sunsets and sunrises with a beer in hand.

But I am joining a tuna handline boat.

Joining fishers on a handline boat for several days is far from what it’s like on board a cruise ship or enjoying a live-aboard accommodation. Going fishing is far from being comfortable and many of the boats, I observed, are even outright dangerous.

First, you have to reckon that most boats leave the port overloaded. This is a result of the extended fishing trips that boats undertake nowadays bringing with them on board ice to cool the fish, food, fuel, and stone provision (to bring hooks to desired fishing level) that will last 5 to 7 days on a boat built with the capacity to operate only 2 to 3 days at sea. This is a consequence of low catch rates.

Fortunately, the boat I boarded is much lighter, had provisions for 4 days only, and did not have ice as tunas caught will be released with the tag attached.

Below is what one needs to expect on board these boats:

Limited space – These boats are certainly not for the claustrophobic. The common deck, that front area of the boat, serves many purposes. It is used for fishing, gear preparation, dining, and sleeping. On certain occasions, it is also used as an area to fix things. The rest of the boat is occupied by the engine, supplies, and storage space.

Red eyes and well-rounded eye bags – From limited sleep, as fishers operate both day and night. One gets only 3 to 4 hours of sleep as there is hardly any DRY space! The common area becomes the sleeping space after lunch, after it is cleaned and dried. We usually pray that it doesn’t rain lest we have to sleep while seated on top of the engine room—the only place that is dry.

Unique seafood – Crew members take turns to cook. Food consists mainly of rice and one viand, mostly meat, during the first few meals. For the rest of the trip, we have seafood, or rather what is left of baitfish. Canned products is a big no no—a superstitious belief among fishers.

Eating the traditional way – With few utensils available, we eat using our bare hands. The left hand holds the plate, the right hand serves as the spoon and fork, and the teeth incisors act as knife. Pot covers also double as plates. The amount of rice prepared is sufficient to feed a dozen people. Two reasons for this: Fishers eat a lot of rice; and they want to make sure that enough food is cooked to be eaten later when one gets hungry. Despite the quantity of food, actual eating is done in 10 minutes. As their saying goes, digestion can come later. This is because, should a line take a bait, the deck needs to be completely cleared to haul the fish.

Biggest bathtub – With severely limited fresh water on board, a dip on the clear blue ocean approximates a bath. Only when it rains can we have a “shower” in the true sense of the word.

Natural toilet – This is what the outrigger of the boat is for—or more like a personal interpretation of what it is. When nature calls, you can do your thing while taking a dip in the water. Or if you want to romanticize, you can do it too while watching the late sunsets and early sunrises to commune with the ocean. Just ensure that you do not have a beer on one hand as you will need both hands to hold on tightly to the railings for dear life!

So, are any of you still envious to tag along? Well, think again. It’s a tough job to be a tuna handline fisher!

Posted by Jose Ingles (Jingles)

Dr Jose Ingles ("Jingles") preparing a tuna tag
© Jose Ingles
© Jose Ingles
Exotic seafood
© Jose Ingles
© Jose Ingles
Squid ink repacked
© Jose Ingles
© Jose Ingles
The common area
© Jose Ingles