Flying fish: From tuna boats to the Rainbow Warrior through the eyes of a heli pilot

Matt Stoios is a man who has seen the world from many different perspectives, but mostly from above.

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Flying fish: From tuna boats to the Rainbow Warrior through the eyes of a heli pilot

Matt Stoios is a man who has seen the world from many different perspectives, but mostly from above.

A good natured Aussie bloke from Melbourne, you can find the Rainbow Warrior helicopter pilot in the skies over the Pacific Ocean, as he scours the seas for evidence of destructive tuna fishing.

But, as Matt explains, becoming part of a campaign to fight out-of-control tuna fishing has seen him do a full circle in his life.

We sit in the lounge area of the Warrior during a small break in a heavy work-day so that I can grill him about his experiences. It’s been particularly topsy-turvy weather and we’re all feeling a bit green around the gills, but the show must go on.

He starts from the beginning. Soon after finishing high school, Matt set his heart on training as a helicopter pilot.

But because he couldn’t afford the expensive fees, the dream was put aside and he entered the hospitality industry instead.

Several years down the track, he was managing a hotel and backpackers, and enjoying a beer with one of the punters.

“Turns out he was a helicopter pilot. He’d been watching how I operated and told me he thought I’d make a good pilot because of my personality. I said, ‘funny that, when I finished school that’s what I wanted to do’,” Matt says.

“He told me to go for it now that I had the money saved. Six months from the day of that conversation I had my license and had started my first job.”

For the next few years Matt worked as a scenic pilot in places as diverse as Uluru in Australia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It was on a job in Queenstown, New Zealand where he happened upon another chance conversation.

“This guy told me about the tuna purse seiners. I was fascinated that they could land a helicopter on a moving boat. It intrigued me and I thought I had to give it a go… Next thing, I have a job in the Pacific, not knowing anything about the tuna industry,” he says.

Matt had landed himself on a Taiwanese purse seiner, where he would do up to four flights a day to spot large schools of tuna from the air.

“I spent almost two years out there travelling all over the Pacific Ocean, being enlightened on the ways of primary fishing,” he pauses and lets out a low whistle. “It’s one way to learn where your food comes from.”

The purse seiner ran a smooth operation. It would stay out at sea for as long as it took to fill up its hold with 1,500 tons of tuna and then return to port to transfer the stock onto another boat. The boat would then head back out to sea to start the whole process again.

At their largest, the nets set by purse seiners to scoop up tuna can be the size of 60 football fields in area and three Ferris wheels in depth.

In the two years Matt was on board, the shortest time it took to catch enough tuna to completely fill the hold was 12 days, and the longest was 66 days. That’s a lot of tuna, and it’s just one boat. It’s not a fact lost on the heli pilot.

“Our fish quantities are depleting at a rapid, rapid rate,” he says. “I used to get in the purse seine net every day to see what was going on down there. The first yellow fin tuna I saw – he was a lot larger than I thought and so quick. But also they look terrified in the net and have nowhere to go.”

But it was what happened to the endangered mobula rays, pulled up every now and again alongside the tuna, which has particularly stuck with Matt.

“They killed a few of these and it upset me - that was shocking. They cut the stomach area out while it was still alive for the purpose of eating it, and then threw the rest overboard,” he says.

“I’d never seen that before. I put a stop to it one week into my trip because I couldn’t handle it. I went down there and said, ‘no, no, no. From now on we throw these overboard’.”

But the gruesome killing of endangered rays wasn’t the only dodgy practice that Matt observed.

Whales would also often be in the midst of schooling tuna, feeding on the same small bait fish. Even their presence didn’t deter the crew, who just set the net around them anyway.

“There were lots of whales out there – but they’d always somehow get free of the net,” Matt says.

And the few sharks pulled up promptly had their fins sliced off before the rest of their body was thrown back overboard. The fins were put aside by crew members to sell in port for extra pocket money, probably a significant boost to their meagre incomes.

“I sometimes felt sorry for the crew. Generally they’re all good blokes getting taken advantage of. They work long, long hours for not a lot of reward and all their money goes back to their families at home,” says Matt.

He quit his job in the purse seine industry in 2010 and went back home to Australia to fly fire-fighting helicopters.

When the opportunity arose to fly for Greenpeace as part of the Rainbow Warrior’s current Pacific work, exposing where our tuna really comes from, he jumped on it.

“It’s always great to go full circle,” Matt says. “For me, it’s my way of giving back to society. It’s a good cause and I’m interested in how we’re going to go about saving these oceans, because we ain’t got long.”

- Sophie

PHOTO CREDITS:

Matt in heli – Paul Hilton/Greenpeace

Other Photos Matt Stoios’ own.