WASHINGTON - As the world prepared to observe Earth Day, World Wildlife Fund and its partners in the International Smart Gear Competition announced three new winning solutions to prevent the accidental maiming and killing of marine mammals, juvenile fish, and sea turtles that become ensnared by fishing nets and longlines - a problem known as bycatch - while also improving the efficiency of commercial fishing.
"These solutions safeguard our living oceans," said Carter Roberts, president and CEO-elect, World Wildlife Fund. "When World Wildlife Fund began the Smart Gear competition, we looked for real-world solutions to protect the fantastic variety of marine life, increase efficiency and profitability for fishermen, and preserve the bounty of the sea for future generations. Today, I'm happy to announce our competition reeled in three promising innovations."
These three practical solutions are the inventions of a former high-school biology teacher and commercial fisherman; a North American team who tinkered with the chemical properties of fishing ropes and nets; and a team of Indian scientists familiar with the challenges of changing fishing practices and technologies in a developing country.
"While it's obvious how vital the ocean's been to me, we're all dependent on an ocean full of life and, in turn, it's dependent on our actions," said grand prize winner Steve Beverly, fisheries development officer for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. "It's just common sense to create smarter fishing gear."
An international panel of expert judges unanimously awarded the grand prize and $25,000 to Beverly, an American working in New Caledonia and a former high school biology teacher, commercial fisherman, commercial diver and tugboat operator. He noted that fisheries' logbook data and studies of sea turtle behavior indicated sea turtles swim and become hooked in shallower waters than tuna, the target species of most longline commercial fishing. According to Duke University researchers, more than 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherbacks are accidentally caught annually by commercial longline fisheries. Beverly's idea is to weigh down the main line with lead weights and release or "set" the baited hooks at depths deeper than 100 meters (328 feet), which allows longline fishermen to minimize encounters with sea turtles while maximizing their tuna catch. Successful testing of this idea has been carried out by three vessels fishing for tuna in Pacific waters. In initial testing, 42 percent more bigeye tuna were caught using Beverly's new weighted, deep-set gear.
An innovative combination of glowing ropes and stiffer nets - the results of collaboration among a chemist, biologist and fisherman - was recognized as a runner up with $5,000 in the "cetaceans" category. More than 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises - or cetaceans - are estimated to die every year from entanglement in fishing gear, more than from any other cause. Chemist Norm Holy from Pennsylvania, fisheries biologist Ed Trippel from Canada, and fisherman Don King from Massachusetts joined forces and developed gear to help marine mammals detect and avoid gillnets before coming into contact with them, as well as allow them to escape unharmed if they still become entangled. To create avoidable, detectable, safer gear, the team tinkered with the chemical properties of the ropes.
A group of scientists from the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in India - Dr. M.R. Boopendranath, Dr. P. Pravin, T.R. Gibinkumar and S. Sabu - were recognized as runners up with $5,000 for their invention to reduce the bycatch of juvenile shrimp and fish in shrimp trawls. Trawl fishermen in India and other tropical fisheries depend on both finfish catches and shrimp catches to keep their commercial operations viable, but bycatch of juvenile fish and shrimp are of low commercial value and threaten future populations and catches. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, fishermen lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year because of the loss of juvenile fish and non-target fish to bycatch. This team developed a system of angled metal grids and net meshes that catches and sorts mature shrimp and finfish while allowing juvenile shrimp and fish to swim away unharmed. Sorting mature shrimp and finfish between the lower and upper parts of the net helps to reduce the time the trawler crew spends sorting on deck. This enhances profitability: it allows more time for productive fishing and also prevents shrimp from being crushed under the weight of fish and bycatch hauled up on deck, making the shrimp more valuable at market.
"Reducing wasteful practices like bycatch is essential to the health of our oceans and a win-win proposition for fishermen, fish stocks and our marine ecosystems," said Malcolm McNeill, a judge for the International Smart Gear Competition and vessel manager of global fishing company Sealord Group Ltd. "Fishing responsibly and reducing bycatch is a top priority for Sealord so we're eager to test some of these Smart Gear ideas in our operations."
The International Smart Gear Competition was created by World Wildlife Fund in May 2004 to bring together partners representing fishermen, fisheries, policy and science to find solutions that will reduce the unnecessary decline of vulnerable species due to bycatch. Applicants from 16 countries applied their ingenuity and expertise to solving this global problem. WWF and its partners will assist the winners with making their ideas commercially viable.