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Say Goodbye to Bycatch: Fishing Smarter in the 21st Century

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. This blog entry spotlights some of the exciting work our grantees are doing with support from the LEX-NG Fund.

Fishing nets are blind. They have been for thousands of years.

Just like our ancestors, today’s commercial fishermen drop their nets, or “trawls”, into dark, opaque waters. What they pull up is anyone’s guess.

In addition to the fish being targeted, their trawls also contain “by-catch”: unintended fish species and ocean wildlife that are tossed back because they cannot be sold. The thing is, by the time the nets are hauled up, most of the by-catch is already dead.

So what’s the problem with catching a few extra fish?

What if I told you that by-catch is a major contributor to overfishing and poses a significant threat to the world’s oceans? Currently, in the United States, approximately 1 in 5 fish caught by commercial fishermen are by-catch. That’s 2 billion pounds of fish and other marine species wasted each year. Imagine inadvertently capturing, killing, and disposing of 4,800 blue whales…what an enormous, destructive waste.

Overfishing is a serious threat to the world’s oceans due to the quantity of commercial fisheries and the volume of by-catch. Here, dawn casts a golden glow over the commercial fishing ships in Newport, Oregon where DigiCatch underwent sea trials aboard an industrial trawler. Photo by Rob Terry.
Overfishing is a serious threat to the world’s oceans due to the quantity of commercial fisheries and the volume of by-catch. Here, dawn casts a golden glow over the commercial fishing ships in Newport, Oregon where DigiCatch underwent sea trials aboard an industrial trawler. Photo by Rob Terry.

In attempting to solve the by-catch problem, Rob Terry, founder of SmartCatch, asked himself: what if commercial fisheries could see inside their trawls before they reel them in?

In 2014, the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund issued a grant to Rob Terry to develop SmartCatch’s Digital Catch Monitoring System, or DigiCatch for short. With DigiCatch technology, fisherman can reduce by-catch by having eyes underwater to monitor their trawls.

DigiCatch’s impressive specs read like the latest iPhone brochure: remote-controlled high-definition camera with lights, video recording and playback, Wifi from winch to wheelhouse, recordings capable of being exported to the Cloud, and it’s so easy your grandma can use it! Okay, I made up that last part, but it is easy to operate with an intuitive graphical interface, making it readily accessible.

SmartCatch stands to revolutionize the fishing industry and improve fishing sustainability with its precision-fishing products such as DigiCatch. Photo by Rob Terry.
SmartCatch stands to revolutionize the fishing industry and improve fishing sustainability with its precision-fishing products such as DigiCatch. Photo by Rob Terry.

With the DigiCatch camera in their trawls, fishermen receive real-time video of their catch and can decide whether to proceed with the tow or cast their net elsewhere. Thanks to DigiCatch, commercial fisheries no longer have to play roulette with their catches, depending on sheer luck as to whether their harvest contains a little or a lot of by-catch.

Fisheries can meet their quotas faster, reducing fuel costs and time in the water. Less fuel reduces acidification, which is better for the oceans, and more efficient harvesting means higher profits for the fisheries.

Being able to closely monitor the catch also means less money spent paying fines and penalties for catching protected species. It’s easier to meet regulations when you can actually see what you’re catching underwater, isn’t it? Plus fewer fish and marine wildlife are captured as by-catch.

SmartCatch is currently working on releasing the next step in its line of sustainable, precision-fishing products: SmartNet. Used in conjunction with DigiCatch, SmartNet will allow fishermen to operate a release hatch in their trawls so by-catch can swim out.

How does the by-catch know to swim out, you ask? Imagine a trawl net sweeping horizontally through the water, like a parachute on a drag-racing car or a butterfly net held by a child running through a field. Using DigiCatch, fishermen can see whether the fish swimming into the back of the net are the targeted species or by-catch. If they’re by-catch, the fisherman can operate a remote-controlled hatch that swings down, blocking the path of the by-catch and forcing them to swim out through a newly-created hole in the net.

The hatch is like a traffic cop: it can stay closed, allowing the targeted species to swim into the back of the net, or open to “block traffic”, forcing the by-catch out through the hole.

This is the first time in human history that trawl-net fishermen will have the ability to control their catch with such precision. As SmartCatch’s founder Rob Terry says, “it will be a game-changer.”

DigiCatch is installed in fishing trawls before they are cast, giving commercial fisheries eyes underwater to better control their catch. Photo by Rob Terry.
DigiCatch is installed in fishing trawls before they are cast, giving commercial fisheries eyes underwater to better control their catch. Photo by Rob Terry.

Unlike thousands of years ago, or even decades ago, today we are facing a crisis in our oceans. Thanks to overfishing, due in part to the large volume of by-catch, many species of fish and other marine wildlife are threatened or endangered.

November 21st was World Fisheries Day, which highlights the critical importance of protecting the world’s fish populations. With advanced technology, we no longer have to continue the same fishing practices that are depleting our wild fish stocks. Thanks to SmartCatch’s precision-fishing products, commercial fisheries can now have their eyes and hands inside trawls underwater, allowing them to fish more efficiently, and sustainably, than ever before.

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If you would like to learn more about SmartCatch, or other projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To contribute to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.

Angela ThomasAngela Thomas brings a background in education and law to the LEX-NG Fund, where she produces content for newsletters, blogs, and internal reports. Her passion for travel has allowed her to witness firsthand the critical need for environmental conservation in order to save the planet’s most precious places and resources. Angela holds degrees from Wellesley College and Case Western Reserve University.

Comments

  1. Brad P
    Oregon Coast
    November 24, 2015, 3:10 pm

    If you fish in the west coast groundfish trawl fishery, every vessel has 100% catch accountability with either an observer and/or a camera system on board. So yes, if you caught too much of a species that you didn’t have quota for (or a protected species) and you could release the cod end if you knew what was happening in real time, you would do so. That’s a no brainer!

  2. Robert Sudar
    Longview, WA, USA
    November 24, 2015, 2:23 pm

    You should be more clear in your opening lines in terms of just what kind of nets you are talking about. Trawl nets may be viewed as “blind” but nets come in many sizes, shapes and designs and can be used effectively and still have very little bycatch. On the Columbia River, we have reams of data collected by the fisheries managers that show our salmon gillnets are extremely selective and have very little bycatch, even though writers often use derogatory terms when describing gillnets. It’s all a matter of the net you use, how you build it and where and when you fish it. This article is very interesting but as you later pointed out, it’s specific to trawls and trawl bycatch.
    By the way, in talking with many chefs one of the things they are often interested in is what under-utilized bycatch species a fisherman might have that could be incorporated into a menu. Not necessarily compatible with the byctach issues you discuss but another perspective from an end-user that we rightfully respect in our society. Bottom line, this is a many-faceted issue.

  3. Ann Onimous
    Gulf of Mexico coast, USA
    November 24, 2015, 9:47 am

    Do you believe fishermen will really release a net 50% full of intended species just because it’s half full of by-catch that is economically unimportant? 40% full of intended species? Do you think they will release a net 90% full of intended species because it’s 10% full of protected marine life? The smarter way is to be able to see what they are dropping their net on rather than what they’ve dropped it on.