Tuna Takes You Places

Profile: Cynthia Wickham, tuna tagging technician


SAN PEDRO, CALIFORNIA, Dec. 11, 2008

by Anouk Ride
FFA media Officer

"Tagging live tuna at sea suits me much better than sitting in an office," says Cynthia Wickham, with a laugh. Born in Munda, in Solomon Islands' Western Province, Cynthia, 21, is accustomed to being on and around fishing vessels. She now uses her love for being out at sea to tag thousands of tuna as part of the Secretariat of the South Pacific Community's (SPC) Pacific Tuna Tagging Programme, in part funded by the Oceanic Fisheries Management Project.

Cynthia Wickham

With a degree in applied fisheries science from the Australian Maritime College, Cynthia took the opportunity to volunteer on a Solomon Islands tagging expedition in February. After a day observing how it was done, Cynthia started tagging. "Once you get into the rhythm of how to do it you're fine," she says. "Tagging was easier once I learnt the tricks to stop the fish from shaking - with yellowfin and bigeye you just cover their eyes and they go still, with skipjack there's not much you can do, they are always shaking around and energetic."

"The tag is inserted just beside the second dorsal fin at about a 45 degree angle. I turn on a voice recorder so I can say the length and species of the fish while I am tagging, then later I will listen back to the tape and enter the data in a data sheet which then goes into the database.

"If a fish is caught that has a tuna tag, the fisher is offered a financial reward and a programme, hat or shirt. During the one-month February Solomon Islands trip, 17,025 tuna were tagged - 1,250 of those tagged tuna were subsequently recaptured by commercial or artisanal fishing vessels. Information provided by the tags include how quickly the fish grow and how far they travel. Some tuna are fitted with electronic tags which provide even more information, including depth and temperature data that scientists use to track the habits of tuna and their environment.

After her initial expedition, Cynthia was offered work on a 5-month voyage to tag tuna in the Northern Pacific. The difference between tagging tuna there compared to the Solomons was marked, says Cynthia: "In the Solomons there was lots of fish so we were busy most of the time, tagging around 9000 fish in 8 days, in FSM (Federated States of Micronesia ) there were days when we were searching for fish or the fish didn't take the bait and so there was not much tagging to do."

"You meet interesting people in this job," says Cynthia about her recent trip to FSM. "In fact we saw many outer islands that even people who live there don't visit because they are so remote. Many people are very protective of their waters so we always let them know beforehand when we are coming and for how long. When we are visiting the islands, we use posters explaining what the tagging does and the rewards for finding a tagged tuna."

These visits gave Cynthia the opportunity to talk to people from other cultures, she says: "For example, in Yap one of the islands we visited called Woleai was very traditional with young girls weaving their own lavalavas on looms - we exchanged lavalavas and the local women wanted me to wear the lavalava traditionally with bare breasts, but I told them I couldn't because I work on a ship with 30 men!"

Cynthia hopes to continue tagging work as Phase 2 of SPC project rolls out. A total of 120,000 tuna have been tagged since the project started in 2006. "I would say to anyone interested in a job like this, get into it," says Cynthia. "Tuna takes you places. The past few months I have learnt a lot from the scientists, making the most out of being at sea together to pick their brains. I find this job really rewarding. "

Cynthia Wickham is the daughter of Adrian Wickham who is general manager of Tri Marine's company National Fisheries Developments in Solomon Islands.

This article orginally appeared in the website of Pacific Islands Oceanic Fisheries Management.