“Where is the FAD” asks my colleague. “WE ARE the FAD”, I yell as we swim back quickly to the boat. The bait fish are too small for sharks, I told him just a minute earlier as he voiced my own worry about the possible presence of large predators with sharp teeth. And then my heart stops as 10 fully mature grey reef sharks show up literally out of the blue in the middle of the Sulu Sea.
After surfacing from another amazing dive at Tubbataha reef, we were about to board our floating guesthouse, the MV Navorca. Navorca is operated by WWF Philippines in support of their work with conservation partners at Tubbataha World Heritage site in the Coral Triangle. Since the early morning, there had been several schools of bait-fish with feeding black (endemic to Tubbataha) and brown Noddies and we went over to take a look.
I thought that I had put my own anxiety to rest with my piece of “expert” knowledge about bait schools, but as I watch the grey reefs starting to circle up towards us, I wondered what was I thinking?!
What do I know? This is only the second time I swim with a school of bait-fish somewhere in the middle of the big blue of the Coral Triangle region. The birds gave it away, as they feasted on dense schools of tiny, near transparent pelagic fish. As we snorkeled into the feeding frenzy around the bait ball, rainbow runners of all sizes shoot through it, startling us as we startle them. So where did the sharks come from so quickly?
In hindsight, I could have anticipated better. In the Coral Triangle region, for decades, fishers have used different ways to attract fish. Some tuna fisheries started using Fish Attracting Devices (FADs) to reduce the time and costs of operating at sea looking for birds and dolphins which would point to schools of tuna. The expansion of FADs really took off, when fuel got more expensive and fish more scarce and the use of FADs with purse seine fleets was much promoted as fishers did not risk catching dolphins in their nets fish if they hit a school of Skipjack tuna. However, as FADs provided solutions to those problems, we found that they created others, especially where juvenile small sized yellow fin and big eye tunas would mix with schools of Skipjack Tuna. We realized that this was a threat to the replenishment and health of tuna stocks and a waste of the economic potential for the fishers at the same time.
In 2010, with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, we organized a tuna think-tank to address this issue, with scientists and fishers we looked more into the characteristics of FADs and tried to map where and when this mixing of species occurs. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/coraltriangle/solutions/sustainable_tuna_fisheries_coraltriangle/
As more scientists, other NGOs, some governments and industry members start to pick up on the need to regulate FADs and their associated fisheries, the tuna stocks may stand a chance to avoid further collapse. Meanwhile, in Malaysia one dive operator is now looking at reusing FADs as TADs, tourism attracting devices. And in the middle of the Coral triangle beautiful blue ocean, I realize that I was just a SAD, a shark attracting device, with nothing to be sad about, because this gave me one of the most exhilarating insights into the inter-connectivity of food live cycles in the oceans.