Seychelles: Tuna is a big catch

VICTORIA, Seychelles — It takes less than five hours to turn a fresh fish into a canned meal and the biggest tuna cannery in the Indian Ocean produces 1.5 million cans every day.

Francois Rossi, operations manager of French-owned Indian Oceans Tuna, gave GlobalPost a tour of the immense facility, a key driver of the Seychellois economy under one huge metal roof.

Fishing vessels known as purse seiners for the way their vast nets are sealed at the top when dragged out of the ocean moor along the dock, three or four at a time. Most fly French, Spanish or Seychelles flags. Because the ships spend days at sea, the catch is frozen on board as soon as it is dragged out of the ocean.

Once the frozen cargo arrives at the port, the heavy fish bump and slide down chutes into waiting trolleys, making metallic crashes like banging pots. These are yellowfin tuna, so-called because of the distinctive yellowing tips on their silvery fins.

Overfishing is a worldwide concern but these tuna do not belong on the same endangered lists as the more famous bluefin. Nor are they the kind of delicacy that might appear on the sashimi menu of a high class sushi restaurant. These yellowfin are destined for the can.

Tractors drag trains of trolley-loads of tuna into the warehouse. The humid tropical heat clashes with the refrigeration, creating clouds of condensation. The lights of the tractors glow spookily in the atomized gloom.

Before cooking, the fish are sorted by size then beheaded and gutted leaving the cement floor slick with blood. To maintain hygiene, the 2,400 workers bustle about in plastic aprons, gumboots, gloves and hair nets. Men have their facial hair masked by “beard snoods” like a chin-borne mirror image of a hair net.

The raw fish are cooked in vast ovens, then chilled so that the flesh can be picked from skin and bones by hand before a machine packs it all into cans that fly along a conveyor belt at high speed. The clattering noise is deafening.

95 percent of the canned tuna produced at this factory in the Seychelles is exported to Europe under brands like John West or Petit Navire.

Alongside the tourism for which the archipelago is famous, tuna fishing is the second pillar of the tiny nation’s economy.

“The tuna industry is the second biggest earner in the Seychelles,” said environment minister Joel Morgan.

But in recent years piracy from Somalia, nearly 1,000 miles away on the coast of Africa, has struck hard. Catches of yellowfin, skipjack and bigeye tuna from within the Seychelles 540,000 square mile Exclusive Economic Zone has fallen dramatically as have port revenues and income from fishing licenses, according to Seychelles finance minister Danny Faure.

“Revenue has dropped as they are afraid to fish in these seas, there has been a huge drop and we’re still looking at it,” he said.

Fishing license fees alone can add up to $15 million a year for the government.

“Total catch within our Exclusive Economic Zone has dropped by 45 percent from 55,241 metric tons in 2008 to 30,288 metric tons in 2009, and that can be largely attributed to piracy,” he said.

Piracy caused a fifth of the registered vessels to quit the tuna fleet last year, said Faure, while the reduced catch caused unemployment to increase among the dock workers of Port Victoria and a slowdown at the immense tuna plant.