The size of the UK’s fishing fleet might be a fraction of what it once was but there is a new wave of fisheries technology coming from our island nation that innovators hope will make global fishing more sustainable.
Obviously as a specialist fishing net recycler, Fishy Filaments sees itself as part of this movement by making sure that end-of-life nets are captured and the value of their materials used to best effect, but companies such as Fishtek Marine and SafetyNet Technologies are working more directly with the age-old process of fishing itself.
It may be a revelation to many of those who eat their produce but fishers are not inherently technologically conservative. If you visit the wheelhouse of any modern commercial fishing boat you can see satellite broadband, sonar, GPS, remote cameras or any number of other electronic aids. Boats are better designed, safer, more efficient and more comfortable for an industry used (probably too used) to high levels of inherent danger and exposure to unpredictable elements.
What hasn’t changed much in the last 30-40 years are the nets themselves. Yes, materials have changed allowing nets to grow in size. Yes, fisheries management standards have been implemented in some areas (notably the EU and US fisheries). But the job of the net and especially the selectivity of the fishing gear has not been fundamentally addressed until recently.
In the last year or two ambitious ideas like using a swarm of robotic submarine drones to herd fish, or using a robotic vacuum to suck up individual fish identified by image recognition software have started to surface. But there are simpler things that fisheries technologists can do to help mitigate the impact of fishing, and bycatch is one area where two UK companies are working hard.
Fishtek Marine works mainly to prevent non-fish bycatch, so birds, reptiles or marine mammals that might either be attracted by fishing gear or stumble into it by accident. It is a significant issue and can be a highly emotive subject since some of the species affected are rare, charismatic or both. Many fishers are deeply affected themselves if their gear inadvertently snares a passing whale or dolphin, and there is absolutely no economic benefit to catching ocean-going seabirds like petrels or albatrosses as they mistake fish lures for their own prey species. In fact, bycatch can be costly to fishers in terms of money and time, due to increased fuel costs, damaged or lost gear and can give fishing a bad name.
Fishtek produces sonic ‘pingers’ designed to reduce bycatch of marine mammals. The pingers are tuned to the hearing of specific species (whales, dolphins and porpoises) known to be present in a particular fishery and be at risk of entanglement with nets. These devices alert marine mammals to the presence of nets in the water by emitting a sound enabling them to take avoiding action, but the fish being hunted are unaware of the deterrence.
The company also produces a reusable fish lure as an alternative to commonly used chemical glowsticks. Longline fisheries use and lose hundreds of tonnes of these glowsticks every year, adding to plastic pollution and creating a long lasting ingestion hazard for non-target species. The Fishtek Marine solution is battery powered and can work for up to 3 years, saving the fishery cash whilst also reducing potential plastic pollution. The company calculates that one ProGlow could replace as many as 500 glowsticks before the batteries need replacing.
Dr. Robert Enever of Fishtek Marine says:
“The global population continues to rise and the demands we place on the planet’s resources have become unsustainable. With this knowledge it is now our responsibility to act fast and behave in a way that ensures the finite resources we use are sourced sustainably. Fishtek Marine is developing technologies which facilitate the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, in a way that that benefits both the environment AND the fishermen.”
SafetyNet Technologies is working to increase the selectivity of nets themselves, reducing bycatch by giving fish a visual signal that is either attractive or repulsive, depending on the species. Moreover the device, in the form of a circular ring of waterproof LEDs whose colour can be tuned to specific species’ preferences, can be fitted to existing gear. The SafetyNet Device has undergone successful sea trials and is in preparation for a wider phase of operational testing.
Nadia Laabs of SafetyNet Technologies says:
“SafetyNet Technologies is focused on increasing sustainability in the commercial fishing industry. Current fishing processes and technologies can be very unselective, leading to the capture of the wrong species and ages of fish and their subsequent wastage. We aim to make the fishing industry smarter through technology development to accelerate scientific research, applying its findings in the form of affordable, user-friendly electro-mechanical devices and new fishing practices.”
The issue of fish bycatch and discards is especially contentious in highly regulated fisheries such as the EU, where fishers complain that quotas are always based on past scientific evidence rather than current species availability. In complex mixed species fisheries, such as those off the Southern coast of England, it can be difficult for netters to select species and for hook & line fishers to stop non-target species biting. In both cases, discards or bycatch can occur which can be damaging to fish stocks and the wider marine environment, but can also be costly and distressing to fishers and their families as every day spent at sea is a calculated risk
The ability to select only those species and sizes required or allowed can only be a good thing, both for the sustainability of the fishery and the welfare of those that rely on it. As innovators like Fishtek Marine and Safety Net Technologies work to help improve fishing itself, at Fishy Filaments we hope to make sure that the inevitable waste arising from commercial fishing is put to best use.
Finally, and really just starting out, is the InnovateUK Satellite Catapult, whose Blue Economy sector focus seeks to develop and implement space-based technologies for the benefit of seafarers and sustainable fishing. So whether that is tracking Illegal, Unreported & Unregulated (IUU) fishing activity by using artificial intelligence to compare satellite imagery to GPS shipping locators, assessing changes to sea temperature or biological activity such as phytoplankton growth to help predict fish stocks, or accurately mapping sea depth from space, the UK is innovating in the fisheries sector, with potential for global application and partnerships.