Atlantic Dawn may be the biggest trawler in the world, but the biggest fishing vessel is the Lafayette. It is, however, not a trawler and has no facility to catch fish or haul nets on board. Instead the Lafayette works as a floating fish factory and serves as a mother-ship for a fleet of super-trawlers and other fishing vessels. The Lafayette simply takes the vast catches of these vessels, where it is sorted, processes and frozen on board and then transferred to transporter ships where it is sent directly to market.
To view external images of Lafayette, click here.
The process works like this: The super-trawlers fish the seas for pelagic species such as jack mackerel and anchoveta. When one of them has caught its maximum capacity of fish it will pull up alongside one of the Lafayette’s three pumping stations (two are on the port side which allow the Lafayette to take the catches of two trawlers simultaneously, while there is a pumping station on the back which is used during bad weather and rough seas when it is too dangerous to pull alongside). The fish are pumped out of the trawlers nets using a complex system of suction tubes and placed into one of the Lafayette’s thirty-two refrigeration tanks, each of which have a capacity of 10,000 cubic metres. An automated system grades the fish by size, before crew members inspect and classify the fish. The fish are then sent to the ship’s freezing stations, where over 200 plate freezers are able to freeze the fish into blocks. The Lafayette has twelve forklift trucks on board which are used to move and stack pallets of the frozen fish blocks. The Lafayette rarely comes into port, with transporter ships coming to it to collect the processed and frozen fish. Fuel, food and crew are also transferred to and from the Lafayette, allowing it to stay out the sea the maximum amount of time. By having a floating fish processing factory travelling alongside the fleet of super-trawlers the Lafayette saves its parent company a fortune – the super-trawlers which work with it (which include the 71-metre Pacific Voyager and the 67-metre Pacific Hunter) never need to return to port to unload their catch, nor do they need to freeze and process it themselves onboard. This saves a great deal of money in both fuel and additional labour costs, and allows the vessels to maximise the time they are fishing.
The scale of the Lafayette is amazing. It is 288 metres long and 32 metres wide, and displaces 49,137 tons. To put this into perspective the Lafayette is longer and heavier than France’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle, and more than double the weight of the Invincible-class aircraft carriers Britain used to fight the Falklands War. The Lafayette can process and freeze 1500 tons of fish every 24-hour period and store, in total, 14,000 tons (enough to fill around 33 million 425 gram tins). It is powered by engines standing five metres high that produce 14,840 bhp and also power electric generators which supply the fish pumps, conveyor belts and freezers and other facilities necessary to run such a large scale fishing operation. Despite its huge size the Lafayette is still able to travel at a maximum speed of 10 knots (approximately 11.5 mph).
The Lafayette began life in 1990 as an oil tanker, the Vermacape. It was bought by Pacific Andes International Holdings who spent £67 million refitting the ship to transform it into the giant fish factory it is today. It was then renamed the Lafayette and registered with a Moscow based investment company (and therefore sails under the Russian flag), although the vessel is ultimately owned by Pacific Andes which is based in Hong Kong and is listed on both the Hong Kong and Singapore stock exchange. Pacific Andes have a reputation for catching and marketing species which previously ignored by consumers. They were the first to catch Alaskan pollock in large numbers and this species is now a major commercial fish and is widely consumed in all manner of frozen fish products from fish fingers to ready meals and is the main fish used in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish® fried fish sandwiches, of which 275 million are sold every year in just North America. The majority of the fish the Lafayette catches is sent to the African market, where jack mackerel is a staple food. Some of the fish processed is also turned into fishmeal to feed farmed fish and livestock.
Due to its sheer size and processing ability the Lafayette is a controversial vessel. If it worked every single day of the year (which, thankfully, regulations prevent it from doing) it would be able to freeze and process over half a million tons of fish every twelve months. Stocks of jack mackerel are massively down on previous decades. In the 1970s jack mackerel were abundant in the seas around South America, Australia and New Zealand with the the breeding stock of this species was estimated to be steady at thirty million tons. This led to jack mackerel becoming a major target for commercial vessels from these nations and others from countries such as Russia, South Korea, China and the Netherlands.
Today stocks of jack mackerel are thought to be somewhere around the three million ton mark. Overfishing, particularly the damage that is done by factory vessels, is the main cause for this decline, with the Lafayette in particular coming in for criticism. It is thought that catches of jack mackerel would have to be cut down to under 400,000 tons per year in order for stocks to rebuild – the Lafayette could process this much fish in around nine months. The use of the Lafayette’s catch as fishmeal is also seen as incredibly wasteful as it can take more than five kilograms (11lb) of jack mackerel fishmeal to raise a single kilogram of farmed salmon. With catches of jack mackerel on the decline, and countries squabbling over the rights to catch what is left the Lafayette will remain a controversial vessel, and there are major doubts about how much longer there will be fish in the sea for it to process.