Overfishing and bycatch are huge global issues in the commercial fishing industry. Thankfully, during his final year at university, Design Engineer, Dan Watson, had a lightbulb moment - literally - which has the potential to eliminate the problem completely.
According to UN estimates, around one in-five of all fish caught by commercial fishing fleets are discarded. That equates to 27 million tonnes every year. These fish are either bycatch - fish and marine species caught by fleets aiming for other fish - or are the result of overfishing - where fleets seeking to maximise their quota exceed the limits to avoid coming in under them.
While regulation is going some way towards tackling the issue, it isn’t enough, and it also creates unintended consequences.
For example, legislation was recently introduced in the EU that bans fleets from discarding their bycatch. However, bringing it back to shore for processing takes up valuable space in the fishing vessel’s hold. That could mean 20% of the space previously available for fish that could be sold for profit is no longer available on each boat.
Dan’s lightbulb moment, well to be strictly accurate his LED moment, uses modern technology to answer this age-old problem. Although this in itself is a challenge in an industry that is slow to adopt modern practices and equipment, preferring to believe in tradition.
The idea that would go on to be known as PISCES came out of Dan’s final year university project. While looking for a project idea, he came across a news article about a group of fishermen that had been arrested for throwing excess catch back into the sea. The fishermen were claiming there was no way for them to avoid the overcatch, as the technology wasn’t there to help.
Dan saw this as an opportunity for his project, and he explained how the idea evolved: “Further investigation led me to a series of scientific articles, some going back to the 1970s, which were looking at different ways to elicit predictable, or different, behaviours in fish. LED light sources had been tested in some examples, but nothing had been done with the resulting insights.
“So, I started to think about how these ideas could be taken further, and this formed the basis of my work.”
The first product Dan developed was relatively straightforward, operating on the principle that in its simplest form, light can attract fish. The device was an illuminated ring that is attached to the mesh of a net.
Firstly, the ring holds the hole in the net open, so it doesn’t collapse under tension and become too small for a fish to get through. Then the light illuminated by the ring acts as a beacon, showing the fish where an escape route is. It works because when you get to around 30 metres in depth 90% of natural light is lost, and at night there is none in the first place. As the fish move through the water, trapped in a net, they often can’t work out what is going on around them.
You could say the light acts an emergency exit sign for the fish.
This first prototype presented some challenges, but they helped inform future designs.
The biggest issue was with water ingress, and after a few trawls, the light died. However, not before they had generated some positive test results.
Fuelled by this early success, and having learned that new production methods were needed, Dan moved on to a second evolution of the experimental technology.
His next version took the principles of the initial prototype further, introducing the ability to change various properties of the light emitted. The colour of the light could be changed, as could its polarisation and the light could be made to pulse at a range of frequencies.
This development opened up a whole new set of options and applications, allowing the devices to be fine-tuned for specific situations.
The lights took on a range of forms too. Some are like ropes; some are solid discs. And they can be used to attract a particular species or repel them, even moving them up or down in the water column depending on the specific situation.
Dan explained how this might work: “We carried out experiments in Norway, working with a crew of cod fishermen. Cod eat krill, and krill glow a specific shade of blue when they luminesce - for communication and attraction.
"So the light devices were set to emit light in this particular blue and were attached to the cod pots. The blue light attracted the krill to the pot, and they were followed in by the cod which were trying to eat them.”
The ability to repel fish comes into play when looking to reduce bycatch. In a particular geographical area, there may be a fish that is the most likely bycatch. The light properties of the device can be set to one that the bycatch do not like, something linked with a predator for example, and they will be encouraged away from the area.
Funding the future
This project has been part of Dan’s life for eight years now and funding the research and development has been hard. He has had support from high profile commercial partners, like Young’s Seafood and Wahaca, and has won a James Dyson Award. However, accessing seed funding from more traditional areas is proving difficult, so the team havedecided to launch a crowdfunding campaign on the Indiegogo platform.
The aim is to use the funds raised to produce 100 of the PISCES devices, which will be given to fishing crews and scientists. Dan and his colleagues will then gather data from these test users to further their, and the industry’s, understanding and to inform the development of the product ahead of the next phase - taking the devices into full commercial production.
What they learn will help build on the capability of the devices and will contribute to a database of fishing scenarios and settings that can support the users. So, a final commercial version aims to allow fishing crews to input their intended catch and the devices will work out various parameters such as where they are in the ocean, what time of day it is and what equipment is being used. Then, using all this information, the units will set themselves to the most appropriate light frequencies and set up for the situation.
When the device is fully commercially available, Dan estimates the cost to a typical commercial vessel will be around £1,000. This investment could easily be paid back in just one day’s fishing. And of course, the environmental benefits will be enormous too.
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