Tipping the Scales on the World’s Largest Floating Fish Factory

The Lafayette processes 3 million pounds of fish daily. For how much longer?

The oversized Lafayette threatens the population of the Chilean Jack Mackerel, and other fish, as it trolls the South Pacific. (Photo: Jack Snavely/Getty Images)

Oct 14, 2011· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

You might think, given all the information out there about how badly man has overfished the world’s ocean, that we would slow down, give the sea and the fishes a break.

Think again.

For a prime example of just how the arrogance of man continues to over-plunder nature, with seemingly little regard for the day when we may pull the last fish from the sea, take the Lafayette, a 700-foot, $100-million processing ship currently trolling the South Pacific.

The mothership of a fleet boasting a dozen more big ships, the Lafayette is seven times the size of a normal processing ship. It currently processes—which means grading, sorting and flash freezing—more than 1,500 tons of fish a day, mostly Chilean Jack Mackerel.

That’s three million pounds of fish. Every single day.

Watch the ship in action here.

The enormity of what has been dubbed “the world’s largest floating fish factory” defies comprehension. It is fed by a squadron of five super-trawlers and another seven catcher boats. Once each of those is full of fish, they pull alongside the mothership and pump the daily catch into one of 32 refrigerated holding tanks. From there the fish are sucked by vacuum to conveyor belts, where they are graded for size and freshness. Given the once-over by a human eye as they slide into one of four slots, 15 tons of fish are sorted every hour.

Frozen into 45-pound cubes, the fish are ferried to shore by transfer boats. The Lafayette rarely docks; its profitability comes from staying at sea. Its market is focused on West Africa, where the fish sells for $1,000 a ton. If you’re still doing the math, that’s a $1.5 million take every day.

From there the fish are sucked by vacuum to conveyor belts, where they are graded for size and freshness.

No wonder the ship’s owner, Pacific Andes International, likes to keep the ship at sea year-round. Previously, the company’s focus had been Alaskan Pollock, widely used by chains like McDonald’s for fish filets. Pollock, included on the Marine Stewardship Council’s “sustainable” list, has been added to Greenpeace International’s red list, suggesting it is on the verge of being overfished. Given the Lafayette’s success, the verdict is still out on just how long Chilean Jack Mackerel will be abundant.