The Lost Battle Fish
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Battle Fish- Season 2,
Pacific Albacore Trollers Ass, Int. say “We are Battle Fish”.
Co-founder & spokesman, Captain John Harder, explains:
The true Battles behind the fishery of “Battle Fish” (Tuna Wars)
Ahoy! Howdy, & Welcome aboard. My name is JB- short for John-boy or Captain John Harder. I am the owner & operator of the f/v “Ocean Joy”. I’m just like one of the 5 boats portrayed in the Netflix production of Battle Fish, only I have a lifetime of experience in albacore trolling and want to get the facts strait. The True Battle, behind Battle Fish was never brought forward! Not even the top 2 wars that this wonderful “off-shore” albacore fishery has endured and is undergoing.
People must wonder why they called it Battle Fish, I know I do. Maybe people think they know, I don’t know. I really liked Battle Fish &, like “Wicked Tuna”, it would be cool to see more seasons. I wouldn’t mind joining in, unless people think they’ve seen enough. I asked others, after seeing the series, what they thought was the biggest battle in Battle Fish? I was told the battle between each other for who makes the most money & the battle of just trying to get by. To make enough money to pay the bills & feed the family. The battle with the fish & getting them on board, or the battle with keeping the boat running… all valid battles, granted. But there’s more.
If you think the #1 Battle is with the fish, you’d be mistaken. “Fish ON”! is a Joy! Albacore tuna, out of all the tunas, is the easiest to catch on Jigs, or lures. Albacore, with their long fins, stay on the surface more than other types of fish. They don’t sound, or dive, when they are caught. When the speed of the boat is just right & the lines go tight, the fish come right to the boat! It’s as if they want to swim right onto the boat with you. The key, like in the movie, is not to get tangled up (standing in your own sh**) & don’t let the fish tangle up &, most importantly, “don’t lose one”. It is truly amazing the number of fish you catch if the fish like the boat & stay with it. It’s like the piped piper or doing a dance. Trolling has a rhythm to it. Marching to a tune, so to speak. The battle is trying to get the right beat, maybe. When the boat roles close to the water, you choke up on the line & get a good grip, then when the boat roles the other way, you lift the fish up out of the water & guide it to the landing table, letting the motion of the ocean & the fish do most of the work. There’s a lot of tricks to the trade but knowing this could be the difference of catching 20 fish, or 200 fish at any given time.
If this is battle then, I’m sorry, I am actually “thanking God” for every tail that’s aboard here. Like a miracle just happened. Dream comes true! What a rush!
Out of the 5 boats showed in Battle Fish, I only know of 1 boat. The Judy S is/was one of my running partners & I worked closely with this boat for years. I know Billy & worked in a group with Bill, sharing information & help keeping each other on the fish. I also know the previous owner and captain of the Judy S as he turned out to be my father-in-law & long-time mentor. His name is Dave Suggs, aka “Spike”. His wife’s name is Judy. Hence the f/v “JUDY S”.
Dave (Spike) & his brother Lonny Jr, aka “JR” or “Coach”, captain of the f/v ROBIN ANN, were inseparable. These 2 brothers, hailing from Moss Landing, CA. where they both built these boats from scratch across from Skippers. In the parking lot. The Suggs brothers were well known top producers on the West Coast. Allowing me to tag along with them was an honor. I followed them, and others, all around the Pacific Ocean. Here we are in Pago Pago, Am. Samoa waiting to unload to the “Chicken of the Sea” cannery. We were loyal to the “Chicken of the Sea” brand, but that all changed after this. My boat at the time was f/v WARLORD on the far left. This is truly “off-shore” fishing.
Now to set things straight & put things in perspective. “Off-shore”, indicated the movie, is out of sight of land, or 30-130 miles away from shore, but to us fishermen, that’s not the case. Off-shore, or on the “High Seas” means outside 200 miles & is in international waters. At the peak of the fishery, “off-shore” was 1,000-2,000+ miles away from land. The west line being 124, 125, or 126 is considered still “the beach”. No boat, in the movie Battle Fish, was “off-shore”. High liner scores. Units & double units.
Now in Battle Fish, you hear about 100 fish per day to break even & high score might have been just over 200 from TNT & maybe Judy S. People must know that some boats avg. 350 fish per day. I set my standards at a ton a day (170 fish) and I can stay. Otherwise, I got to keep looking. On a good fishing day, a few boats will always catch a Unit. Unit is code for 500 fish. A double U, or unit is 1,000 fish. This has been done before. Too many to count. Too many to freeze. We need to be careful not to be too greedy. We try to be reasonable fishermen, not to take more than the Ocean will give, or what we can take care of. We pride ourselves as true stewards of the Sea. That’s why I’m telling you all this. Red Alert! China is overfishing our Oceans and they need to be stopped. It may already be too late.
The true #1 Battle of Battle Fish, the albacore “hook & line” fishery, is with “off-shore” Driftnets!“Hook & Line” v’s “Nets” has been the biggest battle on the Ocean, of all time.
In 1982, I was just turning 21 & landed my 1st job, as a deckhand, on a “off-shore” tuna boat. One of my 1st jobs aboard f/v “PHANTOM” was to sharpen up a stainless-steel sword that was welded to the bow stem, just below the waterline. Its purpose was to cut threw the cork line of driftnets after running over the net.
This would hopefully prevent the nets from snagging our jigs. When I 1st saw the sword, I had to ask the captain, Duke Martin, what it was for. He explained that the previous year they ran into gillnets set by Japanese boats after squid & Salmon, or whatever they could catch. Word was that one time, the previous year, the fleet shut down on a spot of fish “off-shore”. A few days went by working on the fish, when a glow of lights was seen towards the North at night. After getting the morning bite & the fishing got slow in the afternoon, one of the trollers went North to see what was up there & what the boats were up to.
He came to a driftnet boat that was shoveling small albacore overboard. Apparently, the vessel was after something of more value than albacore. It was said that they were squid boats & may not have known the value of the tuna. Who knows? I had no idea of what was in store for us to come. One morning, during that season, somewhere North of Hawaii, we woke up & put the Jigs out to start fishing. The word went out, “Nets in the water”! Someone sounded the alarm as to warn the others in the area. Sure enough, we ran over a net & some jigs went flying into the rigging. The sword cut the cork line, but the net didn’t part away from the boat in time. We had a killer day the day before, but not that day. The net fleet had come close to our jig fleet, in the middle of the night, & boxed us in. There were nets all around us. Nets to the North, South & West.
The only boats catching fish were further West of the driftnets. That meant we had to get around the nets, which went on for miles, or go threw them. What a nightmare! After a while the whole fleet got disgusted. Not catching any fish + getting tangled up in nets, the fleet headed East to look for a new spot to fish. It wasn’t long before we got stopped & started catching fish again, but before you know it, here came the net boats. It was as if they were targeting us. We kept working East until we found a spot to fill up on. We went into San Pedro to unload, just before the canneries closed their doors.
The cannery price dropped dramatically, then they just quit buying albacore tuna from the Coastal fleet altogether. Albacore trollers had lost the battle over who harvested the albacore tuna stocks in the Pacific & were left to die a slow death. Trollers could not hold a candle to the devastating driftnets. For years to follow, the “off-shore” Tuna boats caught less & less. Having to return to the Coastal waters to find any production. Productive is, as told in the Battle Fish movie, 100-200 fish per day. Some 30-50 offshore tuna trollers were going broke when the proposal to go to the South Pacific was made in 1986. Sure enough, the venture was a success & the offshore trollers started loading up. It wasn’t long till the driftnet fleet showed up & the production of the jig boats dropped off to nothing. It was as if the fish just disappeared.
The tuna does not stay on the surface after getting caught up in the driftnets. It wasn’t till 1989 before driftnets were to be banned by the United Nations. But the Ban never went into effect. It was lessened to a moratorium which allowed a loophole for the driftnets to continue. If the Ban had gone into effect & was enforced stringently, the offshore albacore troll fishery would have won the battle over who got to harvest the albacore tuna stocks in the Pacific & the Tuna Wars would be over.
We would be a very prosperous fishery today! Hundreds of vessels would be making good livings and crew would be making great wages, driving new cars... That was not the case. Many trollers turned to the public to sell their fish. Boats lined up in major ports along the West Coast with signs out & adds in the papers, “Tuna for sale”. Bumble Bee, Starkist, & “Chicken of the Sea” were no longer interested in buying Albacore tuna from US fishermen. We were left to fend for ourselves without a good market. Our catch rate dropped in ½ with lots of scratched (net marked) fish. This battle was lost.
#2 battle of Battle Fish. The US canneries.
From the very beginning, fisherman have been battling with the canneries for the market price. You didn’t hear about this in the series of Battle Fish, but this is another hidden truth. At 1st, the canneries would offer a price per ton of fish to the fishermen. The fishermen would go out and get a load, then return to port to sell their fish, only to hear that the canneries dropped the price. The canners always had an excuse. “We have all we need, but we’ll take them off your hands for ½ the price”. “Your fish are rotten, but we’ll take them for nothing”. It was always something.
A constant battle. Finally, the fishermen started an association, or union, called Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA). The main reason was to set a price with the canneries, before the season started. This would be a binding contract for an amount of tonnage for a certain price. This worked in our favor & we got fair prices after that. Then there were bad weights, fish not cold enough, fish not blead well enough, fish too old, too much ice on the fish… It was always something. I remember one time, Jessies fish market, in Ilwaco, offered me 200 dollars per ton over the cannery price, if I bled the fish. So, I bled my fish & came in to unload, but Jessies only gave me 50 dollars per ton extra, instead of the 200 as promised. Then they had the nerve to sell them to the public for 1$ per lb out the front door. This under cut me by 40 cents per lb. I was pissed off to say the least! The next trip, I came into port, called all my friends & put a add in the paper to sell my fish off the boat. The public cleaned me out & Jessies (Ilwaco fish) hardly sold a fish. Thank God for the local home canners. They saved my bacon many a time. The canneries are not friends of the fishermen.
They can not be trusted. Did you know that the 3 major canneries, Starkist, Chicken of the Sea & Bumble Bee are not US owned? Korea owns Starkist, Unicord bought into Bumblebee, & Thai Union owns Chicken of the Sea. They do not support US jig boats. They support Taiwan & China who support IUU driftnets. The 3 major US canners treat US tuna fishermen like sh**! Not to mention the big lie to the public about the “Dolphin Safe” sticker, or the new Marine Stewardship Council (MSC blue label). All that takes is a signed piece of paper, by the captain, to get certified. There’s no inspection or enforcement done at the time of unloading.
There was an open joke going around the docks that the Chinese fishermen take the “Dolphin Safe” document & wipe their ass with it & give it back to pass. Bottom line is the only way to guarantee that the albacore tuna is “Dolphin Safe” is to buy US caught albacore or “hook & line” caught & canned in the US. People should never buy fish that are a product of Taiwan. In the fishing world, there is no Taiwan. It is called China Taipei. China claims Taiwan & they do not follow International Law or uphold the “Law of the Sea”. It’s all a big Bull Sh** lie by the canneries & the public should be aware of this. People should be pissed off! It’s all a scam. Right now, China owns the Oceans. China controls the fish market & produces 80% of fish caught on the High Seas. International waters are meant to be shared by all nations. This is far from the truth in the fishing industry.
#3 battle behind Battle Fish – “off-shore” albacore troll fishery vs US state department & US policy under NOAA , NMFS & USCG
This, my friends, is the hardest battle for me to take. This is like a crooked cop or politician, or the unjust lawman who looks the other way. Putting money 1st over doing the right thing. Then hiding it and lying about it. Dirty shame. No honor, lost integrity, degrading, oppressed, premeditated murder, suicide, genocide, the sacrificed platoon left behind enemy lines that nobody knows about and will hardly be missed.
It all started in 1989, I was up against the wall. Verry much like some of the sad stories in the series of Battle Fish. I just lost my f/v HEY MAMA.I messed up & put her on the beech just North of Santa Cruz, CA. while fishing for Salmon. I had just bought a house and my wife, Leanna, just gave birth to our 1st child, Gracie. I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was fishing. I really loved my boat. But seeing that fishing was such a big gamble & no money or future in it, I was thinking of being a farmer, welder, or something in the trade industry. Just when I was ready to give up hope in the albacore fishery, the United Nations passed a resolution to Ban driftnets in international waters. Word got out and fishermen were buying bigger boats to go out & reclaim the albacore fishing grounds in the Pacific. It sounded like a sure thing. I talked it over with my wife & we both agreed to go all out & invest in a 100ft offshore albacore troller. I was one of a dozen albacore fishermen who invested 500,000 to 1 million dollars on this pretense that the driftnets were going to stop. I went to the Gulf & found a boat I liked & outfitted it with a strong freezer and new generators, etc.
We brought f/v MISS ANGIE through the Panama Canal in 1990 to fish the South Pacific. We started late and had a poor season. At this time, a charter was offered for the up and coming North Pacific. We applied & got chosen to be 1 of 3 vessels to observe the fishing grounds West of the dateline for 30 days. This was to start in the middle of May, 1991. That same year, United Nations were observing the Japanese driftnet vessels. They had observers provided by NMFS & NOAA onboard their vessels. Why they were still around, I didn’t know. While I was out in the middle of nowhere, catching absolutely nothing but a hand full of small fish, the driftnet boats were catching everything & anything. Eventually we got close enough to talk on the VHF radio.
Surprisingly enough, one of the observers came back to me after I called him on #16. We chatted a bit, then I asked how many dolphins they caught that day & he laughed. He went on to say how they were devising a way to get the nets to stay down below the surface. He went on about changing the mono to be stronger yet more light weight. It was obvious he was figuring out how to keep it going & not to be Banned. This blew my mind! Myself & 20 other fishermen were counting on the driftnets to be eliminated. I asked the observer what about the ban?? He then told me that they will be a moratorium. That the driftnets will have 2 years to clear out, but then after 8 or so years, they will return. I asked for how long? He said he did not know. In 1993, the net boats left the North Pacific & we got our fishery back. For the next 8 years the offshore albacore troll fleet kicked ass. We caught more fish than we ever dreamed of. By 2002, the driftnet boats returned. Just as that observer said. Like I said, premeditated murder.
The year Thai Union bought Chicken of the Sea; I was making a delivery in Am. Samoa. The fleet manager tried to introduce the new owner to me saying he had driftnet boats and that they were going to “Kill me” He was threatening our fishery. I asked him How could you do this to me, to us? He just laughed. I reported this to the NMFS officer in Samoa. After checking with the cannery, he told me there’s nothing he could do. I wondered how this could be happening. In 2004, I reported over 9 driftnet boats I encountered fishing in the North pacific. I was on my way to the Marshall Islands to a meeting with the WCPFC. Sitting next to me on the plane was a delegate from Japan. I shared my story & he said you better check with your own people 1st. That USA made a deal with China to keep the driftnets going. Again, I was shot down before I even got to the meeting. USA delegation would not even let me into the meeting. I had to go by way of the Cook Island delegation.
Come to find out that Japan sold their driftnet boats to China Taipei (Taiwan) in return to be paid off in fish delivered. Things were decided in a closed compliance meeting & nothing was ever said after that. As if it never happened. I was censured. Nobody wanted me to exist. Nobody wanted the truth to be told. The money and power of overfishing the Pacific was not to be disrupted by a little Jig boat captain like me. How foolish I was for thinking I could make a difference. Thinking that my US State department would stand up & protect me & our sustainable fishery was insanity. I talked to the head of the US delegation explaining our situation. Saying that US made a tuna treaty with the Pacific Islands giving American tuna seiners the rights to fish inside the waters of all the Islands in the Pacific, yet no provisions or benefits were given to the albacore troll fishery. That the protection of the Salmon was greater than the protection of the Albacore, a highly migratory species. He replied, we had to give them something. That something was me. Albacore trollers were thrown under the bus. A battle lost before it ever began. To be lost and forgotten in time. After all, nobody cares about running out of fish to eat until it’s all gone. Then it’s too late. Kind of like our climate situation.
USA needs to change its policies towards sustainable fishing. Break all treaties with China & start protecting its own artesian fishery. Why should I be struck down for fishing responsibly? Shouldn’t I be rewarded rather than punished? If all nations had a albacore troll fleet, we could all benefit without over fishing. Some say it’s a difficult situation, that there’s no easy solution. I say it is simple. Stand firm on UN Ban. No driftnets or trawling for albacore in international waters. Violators to be scuddled. All IUU vessels to be destroyed, like the pirates that they are. No longer to be returned to their state officials for prosecution. The policy, as it stands, is a catch and release program. Kind of like the currant immigration policy on our open US southern border.
Yes, we are a losing battle. One Battle after another. We are destined for failure. Decided by the powers to be. We haven’t won a battle yet, yet we refuse to surrender & continue to endure and persevere. Maybe someone will do the right thing. Like an Angel standing out in the middle of a field, face to face with big old pissed off bull & crying out “BATTLE!”
Never say Die, never give up, take no prisoners, no surrender, NO MAN LEFT BEHIND!
Nevertheless, it is what it is. Thanks for reading. Hopefully I’ll be back to give you more insight on our beloved albacore “hook & line” tuna fishery.
Until next time, I’ll see you then. This is JB, “the voice of the fisherman”, saying over & out.