How to Avoid a Disaster Tow

By: Ana Pitchon

August 1, 2017

Fishing is an unpredictable business. Sometimes you win big and sometimes you lose. That’s the risk and that’s the thrill. As regulations increase and stocks become harder to find, mitigating your risk is increasingly more important than the thrill of the hunt. You have to always look for ways of cutting costs and saving money wherever possible. Uncertainty can come in many forms in this industry. There is the issue of stock abundance during any given season, boat maintenance challenges, issues with crew, or sudden regulatory changes on season length and/or quota. Many of these uncertainties are out of the control of fishermen. However, bycatch reduction and decreasing fuel costs, two of the most costly issues of uncertainty facing fishermen today, are now ever more controllable given advances in technology. With real-time catch monitoring systems, fishermen can see what is in their net before it hits the deck.

Bycatch reduction seems to be a never-ending battle. In some fisheries bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) are well established and in some cases even mandated by law (e.g., turtle excluder devices). In others, however, there is no established technology for avoiding non-target species, sometimes requiring fishermen to design their own BRDs before approved devices come onto the market, costing time, effort and money along the way.

In the Pollock fishery, for example, salmon bycatch is such a problem that vessels are allowed to trade bycatch allocation if one comes too close to meeting its quota, in order not to shut down the fishery entirely for exceeding the cap. The salmon excluder devices are still in their early stages and have been years in the making through a collaboration between government and academia, and while effective for bycatch reduction, there remains the issue of escapement of the target species, in addition to the cost of the devices themselves.

Fishermen rely on sonar to help find their target species and to reduce bycatch before the net is deployed, but as one salmon trawler put it, net deployment is based on “interpretation of a sonar picture. It’s still a guess – I really don’t know what’s going to be in the bag until I see it.” This guesswork on the part of the captain can lead to unnecessary test tows, losing efficiency and time, just to test whether a location has enough abundance and/or insignificant amounts of non-target species. All of this takes time, which costs money in terms of man hours and fuel costs for needing to drive around needlessly to various locations looking for the deployment spot that is just right.

Record-only cameras became popular a few years ago and helped fishermen with discovering how well their excluders were performing. But a seeing video after the tow is a little like closing the barn doors after the cows have gotten out. Newer real time camera however, allows fishermen to know with certainty about what’s inside the net – there is no more guesswork. A real-time camera, such as DigiCatch, provides real time “eyes” inside of the net. DigiCatch is a real-time remotely controllable video, lighting and sensor system that retrofits to any net, potentially increasing marketable catch, decreasing operating costs, and reducing the potential of fines and costly early fishery closures.

Bycatch reduction requires a tremendous amount of resources and increases operational costs. One trawl fisherman in Alaska who pre-tested a real-time system said, “More information from the net would allow us to reduce our operation costs in terms of avoidance (of bycatch). We have a lot of lost time with the technology we currently have. Every time we deploy the net just to test the fishery and haul it back in, it’s lost time. Time is money in this industry – we try to maximize every minute. With the ability to actually see, in real time, what’s happening from the pilot house, I don’t have to make these little test goes, because I’ll know what’s happening in the trawl, and that’ll increase our efficiency quite a lot.”

Ultimately, having the technology to mitigate risk is the answer to sustainable fishing fleets and stocks. The ocean is changing, more rapidly than ever, and commercial fishing needs to adapt to these changes using available technologies. By doing so, it will be possible to stay in a desired fishery and in a desired location, while maximizing profit. You can avoid choke species and go fishing where no one else can go.