- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Sorry, Charlie, but more fishermen are turning to technology to reel in tuna.
Orbital Imaging Corp., a privately held company in Sterling, Va., uses a satellite orbiting the Earth to scan the seas and produce maps that fishermen are relying on to track down tuna, the most popular grocery item in the United States after sugar and coffee.
While some are skeptical about the usefulness of satellite technology to find fish, a surge in demand has helped Orbital sign up 14 fishing boat captains for the service in the past month. The company has marketed the service to the fishing industry since 1997, when it launched the satellite that gathers data about the world's oceans.
"I don't think there is any way the captains would buy this if they didn't think it worked," said Linda Stathoplos, Orbital Imaging's chief oceanographer.
About 200 fishermen from the United States, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Ecuador, Venezuela and other countries are buying data gathered by Orbital's satellite. That's a fraction of the 410 large-purse seine fishermen who use nets and the estimated 10,000 long-line fishermen catching tuna worldwide.
The fishermen need a laptop computer and an Internet connection through a satellite phone to receive the data.
The satellite, in orbit about 350 miles above the Earth, travels about 16,000 mph from the North Pole to the South Pole taking snapshots of the oceans. Data and images from the satellite are downloaded, and a team of five oceanographers use the information to make localized maps for fishermen, who pay Orbital as much as $2,500 a month.
Orbital also received $43 million for development costs from NASA because the satellite gathers atmospheric data for the space agency.
The maps and data, delivered daily by e-mail, give fishing boat captains information about the height of waves and the direction of currents.
A separate satellite owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides Orbital with surface water temperatures, data the company also sells to the fishing industry.
Most important, the Orbital satellite shows where to find phytoplankton, a single-celled organism at the bottom of the food chain. Orbital's maps don't pinpoint the location of tuna, but locating concentrations of phytoplankton is significant because it suggests fish that hungry tuna prey on may be nearby.
Orbital says its maps are useful because knowing where to find tuna prevents captains from wasting time searching for fish. That can reduce fuel costs, which are as high as $650 for each ton of tuna caught. Fishermen worldwide catch a combined 3 million tons of tuna annually.
"Fuel prices are as high as they've ever been. Anything that will lessen the time it takes to catch fish will be embraced," said David G. Burney, executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation in the District.
That doesn't mean all fishing boat captains are embracing satellite technology to help track down tuna.
"Satellite technology has not really proven itself yet. Everyone has sophisticated sonar and radar gear they rely on. But people are always looking for a way to stay ahead of the curve," Mr. Burney said.
For example, Julius Zolezzi, president of the San Diego fishing company Zolezzi Enterprise Inc., has a helicopter on each of his two fishing vessels.
"I'm a big believer in technology, but the helicopters give us a very good advantage," said Mr. Zolezzi, who does not subscribe to Orbital's satellite data service.
The helicopters provide Mr. Zolezzi's fishing boat captains with immediate information.
But not everyone can afford to own and operate a helicopter, said Chris Wilson, Orbital Imaging's sales manager.
Nick Albers, captain of the fishing vessel Startrek and an Orbital customer the past two years, said others may be hesitant to pay for data from satellites, but he thinks it is the best use of the technology since the introduction of global positioning systems, which rely on satellites and have become the standard method of navigation for the maritime industry.
"It just takes a little bit longer for some blokes to catch on, and others are willing to sit on the fence and see how others go with something new before using it themselves," Mr. Albers said in an e-mail from his ship off the eastern coast of Australia.
Orbital expects to generate $2.2 million in revenue this year from the sale of satellite data to fishermen, Mr. Wilson said. That represents about 10 percent of the company's $24 million in sales last year. Most of the company's revenue from the satellite comes from the sale of scientific data it gathers for the federal government.
Revenue from the sale of satellite data to fishermen will grow an estimated 24 percent next year. That growth could help the company as it reorganizes. Orbital said in September it will file a plan of reorganization in bankruptcy court next year, perhaps in February. Orbital worked on the reorganization plan for months, although it waited until after the failed launch of a new satellite to outline the plan. Its spy satellite was lost after the rocket carrying it malfunctioned.
The company reached an agreement with a majority of its bondholders and with Orbital Sciences Corp., its largest shareholder, that will allow it to raise more money.
Orbital Imaging will get a $3.6 million line of credit from Orbital Sciences, in Sterling, and $8.6 million that Orbital Imaging owes Orbital Sciences will be converted from debt into new bonds.

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