Sustainable Fishing Challenges: Fishing Gear Innovations

Today, Sustainable Fishing Challenges group leader Daniel Steadman discusses how fishing gear itself could benefit from fresh technological innovations to prevent both environmental damage and damage to species and populations. 

Have solutions? We're asking the WILDLABS community to bring your own expertise and creativity to the conversation! Visit this thread in our forum to get involved in this challenge!

If you missed the first part of our challenge, read about Fishing Vessels of the Future here and join the conversation in this thread.

Header photo: Pisces lights applied to a fishing trawl off the Spanish coast, with the goal of avoiding horse mackerel bycatch © SafetyNet Technologies.

Date published: 2020/08/19

Catching Up: Sustainable fishing and emerging technology

Fishing has always involved ingenuity and invention, from the Pacific Islanders’ ancient tailoring of bones and shells into fish hooks (long before metal arrived in their cultures) to modern uses of everything from rotational sensors to machine learning to digitally understand where, when and how fishing takes place. Innovation typically takes place “in-house”, i.e. led by the fishing industry itself, with an increasing movement of start-ups, NGOs and entrepreneurs – motivated primarily by tackling the environmental and social challenges of seafood production – now joining this challenge. We have created a new “Sustainable Fishing Challenges” group on WILDLABS to try foster more of this innovation and collaboratively make fishing fit for the future. 

At a very basic level, the three essential elements of fishing are 1. The vessel, 2. The fishing equipment (or “gear”), and 3. The fish (obviously). While some commonplace technologies are unrecognisable from those of the past (i.e. sonar fish finders, digital catch logbooks), some of the crucial components of the job have altered little (i.e. net design). Newly proposed vessel, gear or fish catch monitoring technologies must be robust, efficient and durable, meaning innovation needs to be answering a genuine need and be subject to thorough, collaborative testing (and consensus-building) before new advances are adopted across whole fleets or countries. 

In introducing the new WILDLABS group, we challenge users to contribute their insights/expertise/opportunities across each of these three areas.

Today, we'd like to highlight the second area of our challenge: innovating the fishing gear.

Fishing Gear Innovation

The equipment used by fishers to ply their trade have remained fairly constant – nets, lines, traps and hooks remain the mainstay of how we catch wild seafood. However, finding the (economically, socially and environmentally) optimal configuration, deployment and management of these “gears” is the source of much debate. Too often conservationists and fishers get involved in unconstructive debates about where to fish, without considering how to fish. Some fishing gears pose greater environmental challenges than others, it is an inescapable fact of their design. 

fishing gear 1

Pisces lights applied to a fishing trawl off the Spanish coast, with the goal of avoiding horse mackerel bycatch © SafetyNet Technologies.

Fishing gear adaptation is another expanding field of innovation, particularly around the issues of selectivity and bycatch. Selectivity means ensuring you get what a fisher would call a “clean catch” i.e. of only the species you want and only capturing individuals of marketable, legal size. The industry themselves have driven huge changes in net “mesh sizes” (e.g. trade association SeaFish have captured decades of mesh designs trials in UK fisheries) and net configuration (e.g. the MINOUW project’s “guarding net” in the Mediterranean) to allow for a more selective catch. Deterring those species that aren’t the target of fishing gear (i.e. bycatch species) has seen cutting-edge solutions applied to ancient gears, from reducing seabird bycatch through encasing hooks in depth-release systems (e.g. HookPod), fitting towed nets with light emitting devices to deter endangered species (e.g. SafetyNet Technologies PISCES device; CENTRO’s Power Lights) and allowing sea turtles to escape trawls through metal grids (decades of industry-government led “Turtle Excluder Device” development in the USA).

One challenge ready for increased focus is that of reducing the impact of fishing gears on the seabed. While most fishing gears don’t touch the ocean floor, over 25% of the world’s catch comes from gears that do (mainly bottom-trawls). Innovations to change the extent to which these gears contact the seabed have dual conservation and production gains in that – as well as avoiding habitat and species disturbance – they reduce fuel consumption. While limited, there have been some strides forward in either raising trawl nets so they rarely touch the floor (e.g. the Dutch SumWing trawl; Alaska fisheries modifications of trawl “sweep”) or even, in one case, entirely removing seabed contact whilst still targeting bottom-dwelling species (the Optitog “Virtual Prawn Trawl”).

Key questions for this thread:

  • How can we pursue industry and tech sector partnerships around gear innovation?
  • Where are opportunities to replicate the growing use of tech to reduce species impacts?
  • How do we replicate that same energy to use tech to reduce seabed impacts?

Help us answer these important questions by joining our WILDLABS Sustainable Fishing Challenges group, where you'll find all of our current challenges. You can respond to this post's Fishing Gear Innovations challenge in this thread.

Check back in two weeks for the third subject in this challenge: Fish catch monitoring innovations!

Help us solve this challenge in the WILDLABS group forum!

Continue the discussion… Fishing gear innovations