Spotter Planes: Taking fishing to new heights?

Parimal M. Rohit

SAN DIEGO — The fun in fishing is mostly in the thrill of the hunt. Reeling in a big catch can be all the more enjoyable if the journey leading up to the bite features significant effort. For every big catch day, there is another one right around the corner with no bites. The Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) hopes to eliminate those no-catch days and ensure anglers will always have bite opportunities.

Some anglers are relying upon spotter planes to help them locate fish and avoid sportfishing vessels or private boaters potentially wasting time fishing in an empty area. A pilot flies a plane over the ocean and looks for large schools of fish. If the pilot finds a large school, he or she would have the information disseminated to nearby boaters.

Drew White, who takes to the air for SAC, has been spotting schools of fish for anglers since 2010. He is in the air between four and five hours per flight.

When he sees a school of fish, White either informs SAC directly or communicates with nearby boats and informs them where they to go. 

“Typically, when it’s nice, in an airplane you can find fish, it’s just a matter of time,” said White, who expects to do a lot of bank hopping this summer. “The purpose is to try to find goldmines. That’s why my flights don’t have to be terribly specific. I basically conduct the most efficient search as I can, stay in the nicest weather and increase my chances of finding something.”

White said he is ideally flying between 700 to 1,000 feet, though he can get up to 1,400 feet on a really nice day.

“From the vantage point of the airplane, I can see surface fish about 10 to 15 miles away, depending upon conditions. With tuna, ideally I have somewhat good conditions where there’s not much breeze on the water, so there’s good texture,” White said. “What I’m looking for is a disruption of the surface, I’m looking for birds, I’m looking for areas of dolphins, and I’m looking for boats.”

There are about six spotter planes between Pt. Conception and San Diego, White said. The lack of competition means White literally has clear skies to roam. The pilot, who is also a commercial angler, said he keeps a watchful eye for what parts of the ocean to avoid. White even designed his two-seater plane to facilitate his searches. A portion of the passenger side, for example, is made entirely of see-through Plexiglas, allowing White to have an unobstructed view of the water.

“My primary purpose is to eliminate large pieces of the ocean that could potentially be holding really good fishing and notify everybody,” White said. “If I see something crazy, I’ll call SAC. They can disseminate information immediately to the whole fleet.”

SAC president Ken Franke said spotter planes minimize the use of boating fuel and increases fishing opportunities for anglers.

“He’s looking where the fish aren’t,” Franke said, adding spotter planes help charter and private boats avoid traveling far into the ocean only to arrive in an area where there are catches.

Franke also said any anglers who pay attention to the radio frequencies from land would have greater confidence of fishing activity in a certain area, motivating them to get in on the action. The SAC president added an angler would still have to be skilled enough to reel in a catch even if spotter planes helped identify where large schools of fish were located. There are also catch limits in place for certain species.

Almost no data is available to demonstrably link increased fishing activity with spotter plane use. The Log reached out to several fishing organizations for this story. None were able to confirm whether relying upon spotter planes for fishing was better or worse for the environment. No information was available whether fishing by spotter plane would speed up the depletion rates of various fish species, such as the Pacific bluefin tuna biomass.

A trio of PhD researchers with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst analyzed the use of spotter planes to target Atlantic bluefin tuna in the New England area and submitted their findings to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 1999.

The report concluded 92 percent of vessels caught more fish when relying upon a spotter plane than fishing on their own. A key variable in the research, though, is whether different gear was used and the skill level of individual anglers. Researchers also said drawbacks of fishing by spotter plan included flight safety concerns, physical damage to fish gear or vessels, potential verbal confrontation among competing anglers and “territorial behavior over fishing location.”

FishDope is one of a handful of companies offering spotter plane services for recreational anglers in Southern California. The company’s tagline is, “Catch more fish, burn less fuel.” Anglers pay an annual fee for a fish report, which includes a spotter plane flying over the Pacific Ocean weekly to find offshore fish schools and kelp paddies.

NMFS officials attempted to ban the use of spotter planes in the 1990s. The federal rule was overturned by a U.S. district court, claiming the NMFS ban was arbitrary and not based on facts. Whether the activity becomes regulated on the West Coast or data is published to correlate spotter planes to increased fishing success with minimal or positive environmental impacts remains to be seen.

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