The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 40.4 percent of global fish catches are made up of unwanted fish, dolphins, whales and birds that are killed by gillnets and trawlers every year. A new generation of innovators is hoping to reduce this yearly bycatch by building smarter fishing nets.
Local fishermen dump approximately 1 million tonnes of dead fish back into the Atlantic North Sea every year. This “bycatch” is often the result of hauls exceeding the European Union’s fishing quotas, but it is also due to unwanted creatures being caught up in the nets. They can be anything from fish too small for commercial sale to species too endangered to be legally retained. Most of them die in the process.
In 2008, the situation spurred Scotland’s Fisheries Minister, Richard Lochead, to tell a gathering of industry leaders, “I am appalled and frustrated at the scandalous level of waste and the economic and environmental madness discards represent. In what other industry would it be acceptable to throw away so much of what is produced?”
Bycatches have always been a part of the commercial fishing industry, but overfishing and other man-made risk factors have led some to rethink the old methods of doing business.
Dan Watson is a British designer. His invention, SafetyNet, allows younger fish to escape trawling nets while ensuring the mature ones stay inside. This selective trawling is achieved via fitted LED rings that blink to guide the smaller fish to openings in the net. A larger mesh panel in the bottom of the net also allows “nontarget” bottom-dwelling species to escape through bigger holes.
Unfortunately, just designing a better net is not enough. Watson’s net won the James Dyson design award in 2012, but getting fishermen to try his strange (and expensive) net has not been easy.
“The main focus has to be the fisherman,” Watson admits. “You have to build something the fisherman is going to use.”
The World Wildlife Fund has tried to spur creative solutions to bycatch by sponsoring the International Smart Gear Competition, which offers much-needed capital to designers that can improve the fishing industry.
John Wang, a researcher with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research and fisheries research ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was part of one Smart Gear team that used reformatted LED lights to guide turtles away from fishing nets. Wang’s team was able to reduce bycatch by 60 percent during trials in Mexico, Peru and Indonesia.
Christopher Brown, a fisherman and board president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, has also designed a net that reduces bycatch. Intended for catching squid, this net contains an escape route for bottom-dwelling fish like flounder. “We need to look at things entirely differently than we have in the last 30 years,” he says. “It’s a matter of enlightened self-interest.”
That self-interest includes preserving fishing populations, not only for food but also for the good of the ocean ecosystem. Experts warn that, if commercial fishing trends continue, fish could virtually disappear from the oceans by 2050.