Issue 20.2: April/May 2017

Fish Magnets

In the vast and lonely reaches of the open ocean, FADs teem with life
Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by Perrin James.

Four miles off the South Kona coast, bobbing on the surface in five thousand feet of water, we find what we’re looking for: a nine-hundred-pound metal ball moored to the seafloor. Ace backs off on the throttle of the Boston Whaler and makes a slow approach to give Buddy and me a close-up look. The weathered yellow orb is coated in guano and bears two markings: the letter B and the command “Do Not Tie To Buoy.” This is B Buoy, one of fifty-four “fish aggregating devices,” or FADs, the State of Hawai‘i maintains around the Islands to make it easier for fishermen to find fish.

As fishermen have long known, objects adrift—whether they’re logs, whale carcasses or even little milk crates—draw fish like a magnet. Hawai‘i’s FAD network capitalizes on fish’s weird attraction to things that float, anchoring those things in place so that fishermen know just where to go.

The list of species that frequent these FADs reads like a who’s who of the pelagic zone. It includes mahimahi, ‘ahi, aku, ‘ōpelu and all sorts of billfish, as well as dolphins, sharks, turtles and even the occasional whale. Following their own inscrutable schedules, fish will linger for days, weeks or even months at a FAD. Some people think of FADs as oases frequented by piscatory nomads in the blue desert that is the open ocean. I think of them as something like small-town, drive-thru burger joints drawing teenagers from miles around: Some come to hang out and dine; others cruise by just to see what’s happening, hungry or not.

A network of deepwater buoys positioned around the main Hawaiian Islands attracts life
 both above and below the surface. Known as fish aggregating devices, or FADs, these buoys make it easier for fishermen to find and catch fish. Above, VV Buoy located four miles from Keauhou bay in 3,600 feet of water.

Every FAD fisherman knows that the buoys have seasons. May through August is the best time to find yellowfin tuna (‘ahi), August through November is when the mahimahi bite and September is the best month for marlin and other billfish. Fishermen also know that FADs run hot and cold, no matter what time of year. A FAD might be devoid of fish for a long spell, then suddenly a big school of ‘ahi parks beneath it and the game is on. When a FAD lights up, word spreads quickly, and fishermen from all around flock to the bonanza. The scene on the surface can get wild. Boats jockey for position. Fishing lines crisscross this way and that, with the risk of entanglement in other boats’ propellers. The tension can run high. Dirty looks and sometimes even words fly across the water.

Today, however, the only life we find on the surface is a single stubborn booby sitting atop the tubular mast holding B Buoy’s navigation light. The current is stiff, so Ace motors several hundred yards up-stream to drop us off. “Well, let’s check it out,” Buddy says, scooping up his underwater camera and easing into the water. He’s here to photograph wildlife. I ease into the water after him, armed with a five-foot speargun. I’m here to find dinner. Facedown in the alien environment, we see nothing more than a handful of small aku, baby skipjack tuna no longer than my snorkel. Still, I have an eerie feeling that there are large life forms all around us, just out of sight. I am, it is clear, on a snorkeling trip for crazy people.

The current scoots us along, and the FAD soon emerges out of the gloom. From a distance we see nothing more than a thin gray line, plunging downward from the surface until it vanishes in the deep. All of the state FADS have the same design: a steel sphere followed by a hundred feet of chain attached to however many hundreds of thousands of feet of polyester-polyethylene rope is needed; then comes another eighty feet of chain attached to three enormous concrete blocks. That’s it. It’s simple and ridiculously effective.

FADs as a fishing practice are nothing new, but these deepwater buoys have only existed since the 1970s. The shallowest FAD in Hawai‘i is in 656 feet of water and the deepest in nearly 10,000 feet. Anchoring nine-hundred-pound FADs at such extraordinary depths is a tricky business, with many going rogue like the lost FAD seen floating above.

When Buddy and I are almost upon the FAD, we fill our lungs and dive, letting the current whisk us beneath the big metal ball. Up close we can see the chain and buoy are encrusted with algae and coral, among which tiny fish and crabs have taken up residence. The current is too strong to swim against, so we get just a quick look at the FAD before it recedes into the distance. As we wait for Ace to pick us up, Buddy messes with his camera and I spin lazily in heavenly weightlessness, keeping a weather eye out for predators. That’s when the shark appears.

Sharks seem to understand how FADs work as well as anyone. They linger beneath the fishing boats waiting for a strike, and when a fish is preoccupied with the hook in its mouth, they move in. Every regular FAD fisherman seems to have stories of sharks taking bites out of their catch before they land it. I dive to confront our six-foot-long visitor, nervously pointing my speargun in its direction but with my finger off the trigger. My father always told me, “Don’t try to eat anything bigger than you,” and I have no intention of shooting. I just want the shark to know we’re not interested in being eaten today. This is what spearfishermen do to keep a shark away from a buddy who might be reeling in a wounded, bleeding fish. In this case, however, Buddy isn’t reeling in a fish. He’s taking photos, or at least trying to. If photographers could cuss underwater, I’d be getting an earful right now about how I shouldn’t be chasing away his subjects.

Back in the boat, Ace proudly shows us a small aku he landed with a rod and reel while waiting to pick us up. “We can cut it up for chum! Maybe bring that shark back!” he says. Oh boy, I think. We motor back upstream and repeat the drill, this time floating toward the FAD in a cloud of recently butchered aku. And this time five sharks show up, munching lazily on the aku snacks. I don’t interfere and Buddy gets some photos. Back in the boat I diplomatically argue that I would like to find something to eat at a FAD, not become something to eat there. Ace and Buddy see my point, and we blast north to find another buoy.

FADs attract a wide variety of sea creatures, including dolphins, turtles, sharks and occasionally even whales. Among the fish most commonly caught at Hawai‘i’s FADs are mahimahi (above),‘ahi, aku, ‘ōpelu and all sorts of billfish.

The FADs around Hawai‘i can be found anywhere from three to sixteen miles from shore—all within a day’s travel out and back. The shallowest is in 656 feet of water while the deepest is in nearly 10,000. The FAD concept has been used for centuries, but deepwater FADs like the ones in Hawai‘i date back just four decades—and Hawai‘i was at the forefront of their development. The devices have since become widespread in oceans around the world, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

It all started in 1977 with a two-year experiment launched by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which anchored several FADs in deep waters around O‘ahu, Lāna‘i and Hawai‘i Island. Fishermen quickly found that the FADs helped them catch more fish and burn less fuel than they would have otherwise. During one extraordinary weekend in 1978, fishermen at a FAD off Kona landed thirty-five thousand pounds of ‘ahi and marlin. The success of the project inspired the state to launch the Fish Aggregating Devices Program in 1980, with funding from a federal program that raises revenue through a sales tax on recreational fishing equipment. In 1996 the University of Hawai‘i took over management of the FAD program, using the buoys as living laboratories for the study of tuna and other pelagic species. “Hawai‘i has been really the pioneer in FAD-related research,” says Kim Holland, an ocean scientist at UH’s Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology and director of Hawai‘i’s FAD program.

The recreational and subsistence fishermen catching fish at Hawai‘i’s FADs aren’t believed to be depleting fish stocks. But the same can’t be said for the commercial tuna fleets in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which deploy their own FADs and use purse seine nets the size of multiple soccer fields to scoop up everything in the eco-systems that form around the devices. The environmental group Greenpeace has called these “the bad kind of FADs” and wants them banned. Meanwhile, fishermen in Hawai‘i continue to pluck FAD fish out of the ocean at the more sustainable rate of one at a time. “Even conservation groups recognize that our FADs don’t put a measurable ding in open-ocean resources,” says Holland.

Hawai‘i’s FADs are positioned between three and sixteen miles from shore. All are within a day’s boat travel out and back, though finding them can prove difficult. It’s not unusual for an anchored FAD to drift several miles from its charted location.

We arrive at the point on the chart where UU Buoy is supposed be located, but it’s not there. This isn’t unusual. The average life span of a FAD in Hawai‘i is just over three years. A buoy can eventually break free of its mooring and go rogue, carrying its entourage of fish with it. Sometimes a fisherman finds a runaway FAD and gets the fishing all to himself. Other times—as in the curious case of Ardel Deppe—the FAD finds the fisherman. Deppe is a Kaua‘i fisherman who won second place in a fishing tournament after he landed a tuna and two marlin at J Buoy off O‘ahu’s North Shore. Two weeks later the same buoy washed ashore near his residence at Anahola bay. The FAD had broken away and drifted seventy-two miles across the Ka‘ie‘ie Waho channel, from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i. “It’s like it followed me home,” Deppe told The Garden Island newspaper. So he hauled the FAD ashore and reported the errant buoy to the state, but nobody came for it and the nine-hundred-pound ball still sits in his yard today.

Sometimes FADs just give the impression that they’re missing, swinging on their moorings over wide distances or dragging their anchors. Whatever the case, we find UU Buoy two miles from its location on the chart, still anchored and holding fish. As we approach, Ace lands another aku. All around us we see schools of bait stirring the surface and ‘ahi jumping. “The fish are acting weird,” Ace says. “There’s something big down there.” Buddy doesn’t need a second hint, and soon he’s in the water with his camera. I’m obliged to follow.

Facedown again in the alien world, we see small aku and ‘ahi scurry past us, spooked by something. Between the sound of my breath in the snorkel, I hear clicks and squeals. Before long a pair of dolphins appears, a mother and calf. They seem interested in the two wetsuited idiots drifting past the big metal fish ball in their ocean, and they stop to examine us. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they speed off into the blue. We haul ourselves back into the boat and putter around the FAD for a few minutes. The general wisdom is that when there are dolphins in the water, the fish will be too spooked to catch. So we leave, in search of another buoy.

A local family fishing at B buoy in the waters off Miloli‘i. Hawai‘i’s recreational fishermen catch at a sustainable rate of one fish at a time, and are not believed to be contributing to the world’s depleting fish stocks.

En route, I ask Ace if the rumors I’ve heard about secret FADs are true. “Sure,” he says, divulging the whereabouts of a few he’s stumbled across, far offshore in the shipping lanes. Ace is unusually candid. Bring up the subject with some other fishermen and they will begin casting nervous glances and clam up. Deployed by enterprising but lawbreaking fishermen for their personal use, without permits of any sort, these FADs are typically low-profile rafts, built to be as hard to see as possible. But just like the state FADs, they have limited life spans and face the additional risk of being discovered by the Coast Guard and possibly used for target practice. “I heard of a guy who dropped one in the water, and then the weather got bad so he headed back to shore,” Ace tells me. “When he returned, the FAD was gone. He didn’t get one fish out of it.” The high cost of building and deploying a private FAD—the rope and chain alone can run $6,000 or more—holds down the number of unauthorized FADs in Hawai‘i waters.

We arrive at C Buoy, which is so close to Kailua-Kona I can see my hotel, less than four miles away. This is a popular hangout for the boats from nearby Honokōhau Harbor. Today there are about a half-dozen colorful, low-slung boats mingling with an equal number of gleaming white fishing yachts, with more cabin room than the square footage of my apartment. The rules of the road are simple: The boats motor up-current, then drift with the current past the FAD, repeating over and over again. It seems very orderly and self-policed. We join the circular parade, and Ace casts for aku. Suddenly we hear the cry, “Fish on!” We cheer a fisherman in a small blue boat drifting past the buoy as he fights a midsize ‘ahi, which jumps out of the water a few times.

Since their development in 1977, deepwater FADs have become widespread in oceans around the world, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The buoys have also proved useful for the study of tuna and other pelagic species by universities and environmental organizations.

I comment on how mellow it is out here today. No tension, no stink-eye, everybody taking turns. “That’s because it’s low stakes today,” Ace says. “If the marlin or the mahimahi are running, it gets competitive real fast. And when the ono are biting, it’s like a NASCAR race: Go fast! Turn left! No, turn right! That’s when tempers get heated and the combat fishing begins.”

With so many barbed hooks slicing through the water, Buddy and I opt to stay in the boat. Overhead a flock of birds circles a patch of disturbed water where the baitfish are being harassed by the ‘ahi. Ace puts our Boston Whaler in line with the other boats to drift past the FAD and land a few more aku. All of this life—in the sky, in the boats and in the water—has been drawn together by a simple, nine-hundred-pound metal ball tethered to the ocean floor. Some of us have fingers and toes, some of us have wings and some of us have gills, but we all want the same thing. As Ace puts it, “We all just want to catch fish.” HH

Additional reporting by Lurline McGregor.