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A brief history of FADs

By Staff | Jun 18, 2020

The term “FAD” is an acronym for Fish Aggregating Device, or Fish Attracting Device as some prefer. It has come to mean a floating object of some kind that has been physically placed in the water with the intention of attracting fish.

Even though a naturally floating log is a great fish attractor, it’s not a FAD because it wasn’t put there by humans. On the other hand, bunches of palm fronds anchored offshore by large rocks, as used by many Pacific Islanders, are definitely FADs and are used to great effect in subsistence fisheries.

In the minds of most anglers, FADs are anchored, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Major parts of the world’s tuna industry are based on drifting FADs. To make the job of finding surface fish much easier, fleets of sophisticated purse-seining vessels scatter huge numbers of simple free-floating FADs equipped with radio transmitters, tracking their movements and planning their entire fishing campaigns around their locations.

The first observations that floating objects attract a variety of fishes were no doubt very early. Maybe prehistoric fishermen noticed that drifting logs and seaweed were usually good places to fish near, or that rafts and canoes themselves attracted fish. Whatever the chain of events, it is a fact that FADs have been around for at least 2,000 years.

As long ago as 200AD, the Roman author Oppian, writing about fishing in the Mediterranean, recorded: “The fishermen gather reeds and tie them together in bundles which they let down into the waves and underneath they tie a heavy stone by way of ballast. All this they let sway gently in the water, and straight away the shade loving tribes of the Hippurus (mahi mahi) gather in shoals and linger about delightedly rubbing their backs against the reeds. Then the fishers row to them to find a ready prey, and bait their hooks and cast them, and the fish seize them, hastening therewith their own destruction.”

Today, simple FADs similar to those described by Oppian are still very much in use around various islands of the Indian and the Pacific oceans and the Caribbean, and variations on this simple theme are the basis of modern FADs.

In the Philippines, simple, cheap FADs are called payaos, and such are the numbers used that the catches of mainly yellowfin tuna around them constitute a substantial fishery by world standards. These simple bamboo rafts with their dangling palm leaves and cheap anchoring devices have been adapted by other island countries throughout the region, to the extent that simple FADs are now an integral part of fishing in numerous developing countries.

Contrary to what many anglers might imagine, the main driving force behind the development of modern FADs has not been motivated by recreational fisheries, but rather for commercial fishing purposes. Knowing that cheap, expendable FADs can enhance the fisheries of developing countries, programs were instituted by international agencies such as the South Pacific Commission. The aim was to design and construct large, serious FADs that would be more permanent and be available to more fishers.

In Hawaii, the development and maintenance of a FAD program is seen as an important role of the State Government, primarily to provide access to fish for subsistence and for small-scale commercial fishers.

Beginning in 1980, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources placed 26 FADs of various designs around the main Hawaiian Islands in depths ranging to 2,500 meters.

The program continues and was transferred to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii in 1996, and at last count it was monitoring 57 surface and four subsurface FADs.

The later are fully submerged, with the buoy tens of meters below the surface to lessen drag from surface currents and to avoid collisions with ships. Surface FADs in Hawaii now have an average life expectancy of three to four years, while subsurface models can now be expected to last for five to six years, which is a very impressive record.