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 2015-18 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 percent and over 66 percent for dolphins and porpoises, while not reducing the take of target species. The lights also reduced bycatch of seabirds in gillnets by about 85 percent.
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 percent and flatfish by 25 percent 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 percent by weight, juvenile rockfish takes dropped by 78 percent, flatfish bycatch was reduced by nearly 70 percent and the loss of targeted shrimp was statistically non-significant at 0.7 percent.
“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. 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, or 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.”
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More COVID-19 funds
Alaska fishermen and other businesses can soon apply for a new $90 million pool of COVID-19 pandemic money that will be distributed by the state. Grant money for the program comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
The Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development announced last week that applications will open sometime this fall and recipients will be chosen “based on demonstrated need.”
Eligible fishing businesses include commercial fishermen who held a limited entry permit or interim entry permit in 2019 and 2020.
Applicants must be based in Alaska, have revenue between $10,000 and $50 million in 2019, filed taxes in 2019 and 2020, and be able to show they lost at least 50 percent of their net income as a result of the pandemic. Nonprofits are not eligible to apply.
Applications will be split into three groups, based on the size of their businesses. Each group will be eligible for up to 80 percent of their documented income loss, up to $250,000, $500,000 or a cap of $1 million. All applicants will be required to say how they intend to spend the money, which will be distributed as a grant that does not have to be repaid.
The funds must be spent on past, current, or future business costs and may not be retained or invested.
Grant recipients also will be required to spend the funds by a certain unspecified date, likely by next fall, or return any unused money.
Initial proposals called for a larger grant program, reported the Anchorage Daily News, but the Alaska Legislature instead used money from the act to fund infrastructure projects and make more money available for the 2021 Permanent Fund dividend, the amount of which has yet to be determined.
Find more information at the state Commerce Department website.
Fish board line up
The state Board of Fisheries is planning on in person meetings this fall after months of delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By this past March, the board was scheduled to have finished up 275 proposals for Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound and statewide shellfish fisheries.
The meeting cycle addresses management issues for commercial, sport, subsistence and personal use fisheries in state waters for specific regions every three years.
A work session is set for Oct. 20-21 at the Anchorage Egan Center, followed by a week-long meeting focusing on Prince William Sound and Upper Copper and Susitna Rivers from Nov. 30 to Dec. 6 at the Cordova Center.
The Fish Board will move to Ketchikan from Jan. 4-15 to address Southeast and Yakutat fish and shellfish issues.
It’s back to Anchorage for a March 10 hatchery committee meeting. The Board will conclude with a March 11-16 meeting on Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Westward and Arctic Shellfish, and Prince William Sound shrimp. The March meeting locations have yet to be announced.
The deadline to make agenda change requests to the Board of Fisheries is Aug. 23.
Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected]