Bycatch gives Alaska’s otherwise stellar fisheries management its biggest black eye.
The term refers to unwanted sea creatures taken in trawls, pots, lines and nets when boats are going after other targeted catches. Bycatch is the bane of existence for fishermen, seafood companies and policy makers alike, yet few significant advances have been found to mitigate the problem.
A simple fix has recently shed light on a solution.
“Ten underwater LED lights can be configured to light up different parts of the fishing gear with six different colors, intensity and flash rates to attract, repel or guide fish through the gear while retaining the target catches,” said Dan Watson, CEO and co-founder of SafetyNet Technologies based in the U.K which provides its Pisces light system to fisheries around the globe.
“The different light characteristics affect different species in different ways,” he added. “For instance, green light is really effective for reducing turtle bycatch in gillnets. Blue lights flashing at a particular rate can deter haddock and drive them away. This programmability means that you can use it for a number of different species and in different circumstances as well.”
The Pisces lights are powered by a wireless charger, require no plugs or batteries, automatically turn on underwater only when needed, and they do not weaken or weigh down nets.
Watson began working on the lights in 2009 when he was a student at Glasgow University and doing research with the Aberdeen Marine Laboratory.
“They had a paper that had been in their library for about 40 years from a researcher who had been shining flashlights into fish tanks and seeing that some species would react quite strongly, some would come towards them, some would move away, and others just weren't bothered at all,” he said.
After working in partnership with scientists and fishermen, the first batch of Pisces lights was tested in 2015 in fisheries in Europe and the and usage has since spread to the U.S. and other regions.
A 2015-2018 study on small-scale fishing vessels in Peru, for example, showed that LED lights on gillnets reduced bycatch of sea turtles in gillnet fisheries by more than 70% and over 66% for dolphins and porpoises, while not reducing the take of target species. The lights also reduced bycatch of seabirds in gillnets by about 85%.
The study, by the University of Exeter and the conservation organization ProDelphinus, concluded that "Sensory cues - in this case LED lights - are one way we might alert such species to the presence of fishing gear in the water.”
In the scallop fishery in the Irish Sea, use of Pisces lights reduced bycatch of haddock by 47% and flatfish by 25% with no effects on the take of scallops.
A 2020 study by Mark Lomeli of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in collaboration with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center showed that lights directed Chinook salmon to escape panels in trawl nets in the Pacific hake fishery, the largest groundfish fishery on the West Coast. Eighty-six percent of escaped Chinook used the well-lit, LED-framed openings and the data suggest the lights can increase salmon escapes overall.
And since 2018, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has required the use of lighting devices on the footropes of shrimp trawls. Sea trials showed that bycatch of eulachon was reduced by over 90% by weight, juvenile rockfish takes dropped by 78%, flatfish bycatch was reduced by nearly 70% and the loss of targeted shrimp was statistically non-significant at 0.7%.
“You don’t need the lights to cover the entire panel on a massive net, it might be that you put them along the foot rope or the headline or even potentially in the wings,” Watson explained. “We generally supply fishing vessels with around 10 lights and a couple of charging cases to keep them going. Rather than hundreds of lines, we're talking in the order of 10s, so that you can cover a sufficient area in the right place for it to be effective.”
Watson believes the lights will eventually be mandated in other fisheries around the world.
“In Europe we're working with agencies to try and get the required scientific evidence for them to start to legislate the use of lights,” he said. “It's still sort of in the early days in that respect despite really compelling results since 2015. It takes a while to get into that adoption phase and that's where we're working at the moment.”
“I think the fishing sector has a massive part to play and how it's shaped and actually introduced,” Watson added. “We're increasingly seeing that as technology is being developed and becoming more accessible, fishing crews are coming up with really great ideas to change how their fisheries are operating, and working collaboratively with science as well.”
Since May, the SafetyNet Tech team has been collaborating with the Alaska Ocean Cluster, (AOC) a project of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, to identify captains and vessel owners interested in bringing the light show to Alaska, particularly aboard Bering Sea trawlers.
“They're an amazing representative for us in Alaska, because not only can they help us learn more about the fishing industry there but introduce us to people and start those relationships going,” Watson said. “It's kind of like having two extra people on our team, which is amazing when you're a startup because we're always looking for extra support and they've definitely offered it.”
"SNTech is a great example of the opportunities we're seeing across the seafood and marine technology landscape," said Garrett Evridge, AOC managing director of research and administration.
Taylor Holshouser, AOC managing director of business development, echoed that enthusiasm adding, “We're excited to see what Dan and his team can do to help fishermen reduce fuel costs, save time, and reduce bycatch, particularly in the Bering Sea."