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A Glowing Net Helps Make Fishing More Sustainable

By helping direct smaller fish out of trawlers’ nets, the SafetyNet aims to help save fish by putting an end to by-catch.

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Fish "discards" are a huge problem around the world. In parts of the European Union, fishermen throw back up to two-thirds of what they catch, either because the fish are the wrong size or the wrong species. Quotas, which dictate how much fleets can land, are part of the issue. But so too is the actual technology of fishing. Trawlers gather up most of everything in their path. And many fish die before they are returned to the water.

Campaigners are working on the EU’s quota system. But Dan Watson, a U.K. designer, is trying to update the technology piece as well. His SafetyNet system—which has just won the international Dyson design award—brings more selectivity to trawling, targeting the wanted animals, while letting more of the rest go free.

The invention is an illuminated ring that alerts fish to an escape route from the net. Fishermen retrofit their nets with the device. Power comes from a circular turbine within the plastic that collects kinetic energy from the water.

Watson says one of the main problems with trawler nets is that as they are dragged, the holes get smaller, stopping younger fish from escaping. So, one job of the rings is simply to keep the holes open. The second is to light the way, as fish often don’t know they are within the net, because it’s dark, and the net is enormous.

"The rings act like a beacon to show them where the ways out are," he says. "The fish investigate, and it kickstarts their escape reaction, because they are thinking 'this isn’t normal.' When they get close to the ring, they can feel the stronger flow of water through the holes, and they can use that as a guide to get out."

Since graduating from college, Watson has set up a company to commercialize the design. He is now in "advanced prototyping," and is testing the rings with partners in Norway, the U.S., and the U.K. He estimates the current cost at $32 a device, but he thinks he can halve that through mass manufacture. Ideally, he would like governments to subsidize the technology, either directly, or by having it accepted as part of a quota arrangement. Effectively, fishermen would get more opportunity to fish, and make more money, if they could prove they were being more selective.

"One of the main reasons for the trials is to establish just how effective the rings are, and then to decide what kind of incentive scheme could be built around them," Watson says. "Depending on how efficient fishermen are, it would determine how many days at sea they would get."

The Dyson Award comes with a $16,000 first prize. Watson says he plans to use the cash for further development.