“Internet of Things” Solution for Trawl Net Fishermen

By: Rob Terry

After the crew of the F/V Tabatha cut a small opening in their net in order to get the device inside the net at the desired location near the headrope, Captain Kenny and his brother Jim make sure that the DigiCatch unit is securely clamped-on inside the trawl net and that the umbilical is firmly attached. Photo by Rob Terry, courtesy of SmartCatch.

February 1, 2017

It’s an early foggy morning in November off the coast of Oregon. The F/V Seeker is out searching the cold, choppy water for the perfect place to drop its trawl net. This is only going to be a test run for the captain, meant to find out what kind of fish lie in wait below his ship on the ocean’s floor. The captain is noticeably concerned about staying within the strict new regulations and catching only the fish he is permitted to, particularly with a fisheries inspector standing by on board. He’s been worried since the US West Coast adopted an individual boat quota allotment system, which stipulates that each boat has a biomass weight allotment for a given time period for each fishery based on that boat’s historical average yield – the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ). There are reports that these new regulations are effective in rebuilding some fish stocks, but the stricter regulations are also making it harder for the smaller fleets to stay in business and for the larger fleets to stay profitable. If the captain fails to comply with these regulations, he may be fined, lose his boat or even face criminal charges.

For a small boat like his, the margins are razor thin. An unproductive catch will end up losing him money. Ongoing challenges from the various NOAA “manned observer programs” continue to take their toll on profits and the need for more cost effective measures.

The captain chooses his site carefully, even surveying it with sophisticated side scan sonar, trying to divine whether there’s anything worth fishing for. Sonar, a “ping-back” technology invented in the 1940s, only produces a fuzzy image. It has been slowly becoming more sophisticated but still cannot reliably distinguish between fish species, or even between fish and the ocean floor. Unwilling to rely on just his intuition about what lies below, the captain readies the crew to drop the net for a “test tow”.

The new bycatch regulations have come with tighter enforcement: The boat’s owner is actually paying more than $100/hour for a trained “observer”, ready on deck with his clipboard, scale and camera, prepared to document any violation. Finally, by late morning, after a few hours of towing, the F/V Seeker is ready to haul the trawl net back in. With the fisheries inspector standing by, the crew starts spooling up the net. When the catch end of the net breaks the surface, the trawl net looks amazingly full – a great catch! But as the net begins to open up, everyone’s excitement turns to horror. Dumping onto the deck is 47,000 lbs. of Canary Rock Fish, a species that, at the time of this catch, was listed as overfished and, hence, illegal.

That winter morning tow was a disaster of epic proportions for the Seeker’s crew and captain. The boat not only exceeded its own quota, but it exceeded the quota of the entire fishery and caused an immediate closure for the remainder of that season and the next. The government shut down the fishery for the rest of 2015 and, theoretically, for 2016 as well. This affected more than $5 million worth of fish that, because of the Seeker’s blind error, nobody could catch.

Unfortunately, the Seeker is not the only boat that has run into this problem. Other trawlers have come up against fishery limits for other species that have caused early season closures and have prevented vessels from fishing for some time; the Seeker is just an extreme example.

Real-Time Digital Catch Monitoring

SmartCatch (smart-catch.com), a Silicon Valley- and Oregon-based “Internet of Things” (IoT) start-up company, wants to end the practice of “blind” trawl net fishing by ensuring that fishermen have the ability to monitor the contents of their nets in real time and thus avoid disaster tows like the Seeker’s. More fish are caught using nets than by any other method. Nets are extremely efficient, but can also be extremely indiscriminate. Additionally, even with the best nets available today, fishermen have no idea what they are catching. Typically, one out of every four fish caught in a trawl net is a non-target fish and is considered bycatch. While some fisheries are almost bycatch free, other fisheries, like shrimp, have a lot of problems.

The global bycatch waste is estimated at around 27 million tons annually. The SmartCatch smart fishing gear is created to help fishermen achieve their goals of reducing bycatch, maximizing their quota and complying with government regulations. The company’s flagship product, DigiCatch, is a state-of-the art, real-time HD video, lighting and sensor system that offers fishermen visibility inside their nets and, thus, ultimate control over their tow. The camera can be remotely rotated into position and the high-intensity lighting can be remotely dimmed or intensified. The location, temperature, depth and salinity sensors can all be continually monitored. The comprehensive suite of digital image filters provides visibility even in the most difficult conditions. DigiCatch is all about giving fishermen the clearest possible picture in constantly changing and optically challenging underwater conditions.


In testing in the last few years, SmartCatch performed a battery of sea trials off the coast of Newport, Oregon, with the latest beta version of DigiCatch. These trials took place on the trawler F/V Tabatha with Captain Kenny Reinertson. For the duration of the trials, the catch end of the net was purposely left open for the fish to swim through, but regulations still required an inspector to be on board. For the initial sea trials, SmartCatch built and brought on board a custom third wire winch. The winch had 300 m of cable and terminated in a wireless Wi-Fi transmitter. Even though the sea tests never exceeded 275-m depth, the team knew that going deeper would not be a problem; the device had been previously tested in a pressure chamber down to 1,000 m with a 3x safety factor. The team performed numerous test tows over several weeks. The captain and crew had no problem quickly learning and easily installing DigiCatch. After the first install, it would typically take them less than 15 min. to install. The team experimented with mounting the device in several locations inside the net, from the head-rope all the way back to the catch end of the net. There were no problems with the device leaking, with signal/data integrity, with the camera or net mountings coming loose, or with cable entanglement during the many times it was deployed and retrieved. Additionally, the device had no issues spooling right up onto the net reel between tows unplugged but still mounted in the net.

The real-time HD video had extraordinary clarity and great image quality. It performed well even in extremely low light and murky conditions. The team utilized the digital video enhancement filters to clean up and further improve the video clarity, and they were able to see in almost pitch-black conditions. The lighting controls and camera rotation worked very smoothly and allowed the crew to dynamically “dial in” the best possible video view.

Not only did the captain and crew report seeing clearly the fish activity inside the net, but they also reported seeing clearly how the net was actually deploying underwater. Using DigiCatch, they could be certain the net was opening up wide enough and staying open. They could see whether the net was stable or whether the opening was restricting the flow of fish.

The team reported that sometimes too much light caused a blinding reflection off the fish scales and floating particles in the water. However, the DigiCatch lighting controls let them remotely compensate and reduce the intensity and even change the color of the lights from the wheelhouse to improve the light penetration.

During one of the long tows, the team reported that it looked like they were flying through a snowstorm underwater. Small and medium size white globules went sailing past the camera in a wide variety of concentrations. Eventually the material fouled the camera’s forward view and the team had to flip the camera to look behind. When they brought their net back on deck, everyone was surprised to see the gear covered with a glutinous, slimy material and realized that they had been towing the system through a huge spawning ground saturated with squid eggs.

DigiCatch has since begun commercial trials on the F/T Constellation, a 170-foot industrial factory trawler that operates in the Bering Sea. This exposes the digital catch monitoring technology to the extremely harsh and challenging conditions of an Alaska winter in order to ensure that all the SmartCatch gear works with 100 percent reliability and that new crews can easily integrate DigiCatch into their daily workflow.

Precision Fishing

When the first generation of GPS was introduced into the farming industry back in the 1970s, it sparked a revolution. Now farmers have self-driving tractors to till, plant, harvest and optimize every inch of their farming operations. We are now firmly in the age of precision agriculture.

Similarly, SmartCatch is focused on increasing trawl net transparency, putting fishermen in control of their tows and spearheading a new approach to commercial fishing: precision fishing. SmartCatch’s products are built upon a proprietary high-speed digital backbone technology. This data superhighway connects a fisherman in his wheelhouse to the trawl net under his ship and to a secure cloud repository for data.

In addition to DigiCatch, SmartCatch’s product pipeline includes add-on robotic trawl net modules, which will integrate trap doors and chutes into trawl nets, enabling fishermen to discriminate and harvest their target species with superior precision.

Fishing has been around a long time, but it really hasn’t changed much. Today, the industry must evolve to survive. Since the industrialization of fishing in the 1960s, the resulting bigger boats, bigger fleets and bigger nets have facilitated more and more biomass being dragged up from the ocean, satisfying increasing consumer demands but also stressing fish populations. Smart technology, such as remote cameras and robotic net modules, will help fishermen avoid fishing blind and help reduce their bycatch by enabling them to harvest their target species with greater confidence.

In the words of Reinertson, “With DigiCatch, I know if my tow will be profitable in 40 minutes instead of 4 hours.” As the industry learned from the Seeker’s unfortunate catch, every minute of a “blind” trawl can really add up.