Fish aggregating device follows fisherman home

ANAHOLA — Kaua‘i’s fishermen love to collect those unique Japanese glass balls that once in a while wash ashore. Their prized findings are promptly displayed in their yards.

But who has a 600-pound metal ball in their front yard? And what is it?

“It actually came up on the beach and we brought it over to the yard,” local contractor Ardel Deppe said.

The massive object sitting on the front yard of Deppe’s Anahola home is actually nothing more than a Fish Aggregating Device that has lost its mooring.

FADs are used as a tool to boost fish catch, said biologist Don Heacock of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Aquatics Division.

“Pelagic fish populations tend to accumulate around floating logs,” said Heacock, adding that fishermen in Hawai‘i have known for centuries that schools of ahi, ono, mahi-mahi and other large, deep-ocean fish hang around floating objects because there’s food around.

The DLNR deployed the first 26 FADs in 1980 in waters around the Main Hawaiian Islands. In 1996, the program went under the University of Hawai‘i’s Institute of Marine Biology, according to the UH website.

UH FAD program leader Kim Holland said now there are 54 surface FADs monitored and maintained statewide.

The FAD on ‘Aliomanu Road has the letter J written in three spots. A look into the FAD location map at the UH website shows it should be floating some 17 miles northeast of Ka‘ena Point, O‘ahu, anchored at 960 fathoms — 5,760 feet — deep.

The buoy is not reported as missing, according to the UH website. Deppe said the FAD has been on his property “every bit of 10 years, probably more than that.”

If Deppe’s recollection is accurate, the FAD lost its mooring almost exactly seven years ago.

In June 2004, O‘ahu fisherman Richard Shiroma, 61, was fishing when he reported on a radio communication with another boat that he had hooked a marlin and was tying it to his 25-foot boat. Some time later his boat turned up on O‘ahu’s North Shore, with the engine still running and the marlin still tied up to its side. Shiroma wasn’t there, and he was never found.

About two weeks later, the Hanapa‘a Jackpot Fishing Tournament on O‘ahu’s North Shore was dedicated to Shiroma, a regular in that tournament.

Deppe made the crossing from Kaua‘i to O‘ahu to participate in the tournament. Kaua‘i contractor Roy Takasuki also went on his 18-foot Boston Whaler called “Beverly.”

“He would go across by himself and I finally convinced him to have one of my workers to go with him,” Deppe said.

Once on the waters off O‘ahu, Deppe’s worker returned to his boss’ boat and Takasuki fished by himself.

“On Friday I caught a tuna and two marlin at that buoy,” said Deppe of FAD J.

He ended up placing second in the tournament. Two weeks later, the same FAD showed up at Anahola Bay. “It’s like it followed us home.”

Takasuki, however, did not return home.

“He never came in on the last day of the tournament,” Deppe said. “It was on Friday afternoon. They never heard of him since.”

Takasuki’s boat was later found at Kilauea Point.

“The guy was so hard head about fishing by himself,” Deppe said of Takasuki. “We used to worry about him and tried to keep an eye on him, but I guess he went to where he wanted to be.”

Weakest link

The upper part of a FAD has a short pipe with a navigation light on top.

“For a while the light worked, and I finally unscrewed it,” said Deppe, adding that he disconnected the light because it would go on all night long.

A longer pipe on the bottom of the FAD attaches to a 100-foot chain. The end of the chain attaches to a sinking nylon rope, connected by a splice to a floating nylon rope. At the very end of the rope there’s a shackle-swivel connection attached to three large cement blocks that function as anchors.

“The weakest link is the chain, no pun intended,” said Heacock, explaining that FADs that have broken loose usually display broken chains.

He said some fishermen illegally tie their boats to the FADs, causing it to break loose.

A state website says it’s “unlawful to attach, moor, or tie any boat or watercraft, or any rigging or structure to a FAD, or to board, deface, damage, remove or destroy any FAD.”

“These things are not designed to hold a boat,” said Heacock, adding that on a windy day the pull of a large boat attached to a FAD is so powerful that the chain can easily break.

“The last two FADs I’ve seen break loose looked like they could’ve had moorings illegally attached to them,” he said.

The state program utilizes two types of FAD: surface and subsurface, according to the UH website.

Holland said the average life span of a FAD is about three years, although some have remained at their station for 12 years.

Surface FADs have an average life expectancy of three-to-four years, depending on sea and weather conditions, the UH website states. Subsurface FADs tend to last five-to-six years because of decreased tugging on the mooring line and are less likely to be run over by ships.

However, because subsurface FADs are beneath the surface, they also tend to be harder for fishermen to locate, the website states.

Follow the FAD

“The fishing community is split,” Heacock said of the FAD deployment.

Some fishermen, he said, have an opinion that those buoys should not be deployed because they also attract two-to-three pound tuna which would have reached 30 or 40 pounds in just a few months if left alone.

Capt. Rusty Spencer, from fishing charter Kuuloa Kai on O‘ahu, said he is biased on the subject; every time he goes fishing he goes near a FAD because he thinks they are “great ways to hold fish” in an area.

“If we had no buoys, my job of making sure we catch our customers some fish would be much harder,” he said.

Kaua‘i fisherman Frank Medeiros, who has been fishing most of his life, said captains of charter boats “love” the buoys, but take a lot of undersize fish in the process.

“They run straight up there in the morning,” he said. “If nothing else they yank a lot of small fish. They make the tourists happy.”

Since the buoys have been introduced, fish swimming patterns have changed, Medeiros said.

“As an old-time fisherman, like most of the old-timers, we kinda disagreed when they put it because it affects the behavior of the fish,” he said, explaining that fish schools have moved farther away from the coast.

“Before, we could just go right off the ledge and work outside Anahola or Nawiliwili,” he said. “The fish was more plenty off the ledges.”

Now the ledges are “pretty dead,” with hardly any action because the fish are more attracted to the buoys, Medeiros said.

Despite criticizing the buoys, Medeiros wasn’t completely against them.

“There’s been some really good buoys,” he said.

The Z buoy, outside of Kipu Kai on southwestern Kaua‘i, used to be the top fish-producing buoy in the state, attracting large tuna and other fish, according to Medeiros.

Economic viability

Heacock questioned the economic feasibility of the program. He said it would be interesting to find out if there are any studies analyzing the cost-benefit of deploying the FADs.

Each FAD costs about $8,000 to fabricate and deploy, he said. The program is federally funded — about $350,000 annually — but the money is disbursed through DLNR. UH Manoa provides some “in kind” match for the federal funds.

“These funds are derived from taxes on items such as sport fishing equipment under the terms of the federal Sport Fishing Restoration Act,” he said.

Holland said there are no reliable cost/benefit estimates on the Hawai‘i FAD program, although a 1980s study showed significant benefits. He blamed the lack of estimates on an absence of data due to Hawai‘i having no requirements to report sport fishing catches.

“However, it is certain that the FADs are very popular with the local community and that the cost/benefit of the FADs has increased greatly in recent years as the cost of gas and diesel has increased so dramatically — by fishing at FADs, fishers greatly reduce the amount of fuel that they use to catch fish,” he said.

The FADs can become a marine hazard to boaters if they break loose or if the light is not working, Heacock said.

“We have a lot of programs that need to be re-evaluated again,” he said. “This may be one of them.”

Heacock wasn’t sure if there is a fine for taking a buoy home. “The FADs are state property.”

Holland was also unsure of the legal consequences of keeping a FAD as a souvenir.

“Whether or not the person with the FAD in their yard is breaking the law is complicated,” Holland said. “I am not sure of the legal status if this FAD was found adrift.”

Deppe said he has pulled four or five buoys ashore, and called the DLNR to retrieve them.

“We called them and they don’t want to pick them up or have anything to do with them,” he said.


Holland said Hawai‘i’s FADs are used extensively for research into the biology of open ocean fishes and fish movement patterns.

The researches have brought several million dollars to Hawai‘i over the past decade, according to Holland.

“Hawai‘i is a major leader in this field,” he said. “Current indications are that the FADS do not permanently alter the large scale movements of pelagic fishes such as tuna and marlin and also that the amount of fish caught near Hawai‘i’s FADs does not have a significant impact on the overall population size of these species.”

FADs are also used in other tropical oceans, Holland said.

A study finished in March, carried out as part of the French contribution to the South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Project, assessed the socio-economic impacts on the local fisheries and communities in the South West Indian Ocean.

The study reviewed conditions in seven countries in that region.

It reached four main conclusions:

• The potential of pelagic fish stock appears to be sufficient to allow use of FADs without risking overexploitation, as long as capture of juveniles is prohibited.

• Technological differences limited the deployment of FADs to locations reachable by non-motorized canoes, except in Mauritius and Seychelles, where all fishermen have motorized boats.

• The hotel industry along the coast of those countries heavily supports the market demand for pelagic fish.

• For the FAD fishery to be sustainable, FADs should be subject to monitoring, maintenance, replacement and management measures to ensure equitable access and sustainable use of resources.

• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@


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