FEATURE ARTICLE - To catch or not to catch

Our latest feature take a closer look at challenges to fishing technologists in the new millennium.
Published: 11 November 2019

ICES/FAO Working Group on Fishing Technology and Fish Behaviour co-chairs Haraldur Arnar Einarsson, Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, Iceland, and Pingguo He,  School for Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, USA, and member Mike Pol, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, USA, discuss the evolution of fishing gear and technology .

Fishing from the earliest time
While we do not know when humans started catching fish, it was probably during the same period that Homo sapiens learned to use tools. Fishing might be one of our earliest hunting activities.  The earliest tools for fishing were probably spears or hooks made of wood and/or bones or stone dams that formed traps. Fishing gear has since continuously evolved as new materials, such as metals, were developed and as humans ventured further away from the shore into deeper waters. The development of engines and plastics dramatically changed fishing gear, fishing technology, and fishing grounds during the twentieth century. While the basic forms of fishing gear such as hooks and nets have remained the same for a long time, new technologies have put heavy pressures on fisheries resources, aquatic ecosystems, and the environment in general.

Today it is sometimes more challenging not to catch certain species or size of fish. And the long-lasting synthetic material which was hailed as one of the greatest inventions in the history of fishing has become one of the most pressing environmental issues for the ocean where most fishing takes place.

A century of research on fishing gear technology
The 1920s may mark the beginning of fishing gear and technology research because of work carried out on gear design, calculation, and modelling. Underwater observations of fish and fishing gear began in the 1950s, demonstrating significant progress in our understanding of how fishing gear operates and how fish are caught by it. Fishing gear research flourished in post-war Europe during which time ICES played a key role. While ICES Working Group on Fishing Technology and Fish Behaviour  (WGFTFB) officially formed in 1984, its predecessors, with various forms of concentration on fishing gear and technology, began their research in mid-1950s. 

The invention of SCUBA techniques and the availability of underwater cameras provided a great advance for our understanding of fishing processes as well as their impact on the environment. Understanding the selectivity of fishing gear, especially the selectivity of trawl codend meshes, formed the basis for the minimum mesh size regulations: first in Europe and North America, then spreading to many parts of the world. Realizing that two hauls with the same fishing gear at the same location would not produce the same exact catch in terms of species and size, various statistical methods were developed to account for between-haul variations. 

Over the past 50 years, geo-political crises that influence fuel prices and, lately, concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels have prompted research on fuel-saving fishing gears and operations. The overfishing of certain species and/or stocks in various regions along with the protection of vulnerable animals at sea has meant shifting the research focus. Innovative designs and operational methods now take into account variations in species-specific fish behaviour to improve selectivity and reduce mortality to endangered, threatened, and protected species. The aim is to find the right stimuli and gear design to separate wanted and unwanted species.

Current challenges in capture fisheries  
Around the world, the challenges that capture fisheries face dictate research on fishing gear and technology. One of the great challenges is how to reduce the impact of fishing operations on the marine ecosystem. Fisheries are important contributors to food security and economic prosperity, especially for coastal and island nations. The reduction of bycatch, or the improvement in species selectivity, is crucially important to protect sensitive species while allowing fishing to continue. Well-designed fishing gears can be selective, efficient, and environmentally friendly at the same time.

Fishing gears for commercial fisheries and ecosystem surveys 
Commercial fishing gears have evolved around improvements in capture efficiency while reducing unwanted negative impacts to resources and the environment. Ecosystem survey fishing gears aim for consistent, known selectivity and fishing efficiency over a variety of fishing ground conditions. Through generations of fishing technologists, the members of WGFTFB have worked on both fronts for several decades. However, even though many technological solutions that improve selectivity and efficiency have been developed through research, the uptake of new technology by the fishing industry can be slow or sometimes neglected by management authorities. Some recent projects have aimed to improve the adoption rate of research findings and new technologies into commercial fishing operations. Good examples are Gearnet (US), DiscardLess (EU) and Gearing Up (UK), all of which have a strong participation of WGFTFB members.

Growing popularity of fishing gear research
Those of us who have been working in the field of fishing gear research have seen an increased interest in fishing gear research and development, for example, related to environmental impacts of the gea. In 2002, FAO joined with ICES to co-sponsor the group and the formation of ICES/FAO Working Group on Fishing Technology and Fish Behaviour has provided momentum and global scope. This partnership has resulted in a worldwide membership of almost 300 experts, the largest among ICES many expert groups. Contributing factors to this increased membership include the EU Landing Obligation, fisheries certifications and improvement plans, and global awareness on the reduction of wastes through bycatch and discards. Sustainability labels on fish products require fisheries to prove that their product is harvested selectively with minimal harm to non-target species, protected species, and the ecosystem. Growing concerns about the pollution of our oceans through plastic waste raise questions about the material used in fishing gear and whether there could be less polluting alternatives. Low-cost underwater cameras, including high-quality small-size HD camera, and 3D cameras, increase the possibilities to inspect fishing gear in action and observe the behaviour of animals in situ. These and other factors have made this field of research very exciting and fulfilling to work in.

Looking into the future  
High technology solutions are clearly coming to fishing gear designs and operations. New projects and innovations for towed fishing gears include identification and counting of the catch during the fishing process, and mechanisms to release unwanted species and sizes before they are taken onboard, thus reducing unwanted mortality. There is renewed interest in artificial lights and sounds as stimuli to influence fish behaviour - to attract, guide, or repel them - to improve catch efficiency for target species and to reduce unwanted bycatch species. Perhaps in the near future we will see fishing gear that can harvest resources with few negative impacts while keeping the fisheries profitable and sustainable. Ultimately, it is not only the gear but also the fishers and the fisheries managers that will have to adapt to changes and embrace ever-changing technologies. To help with those changes, we must seek to understand the behaviour of both fish and Homo sapiens.​

The work of WGFTFB addresses many of ICES science priorities, such as Observation and exploration​, Emerging techniques and technologies​, and Seafood production. Read about all our science priorities in ICES Science Plan.​ 

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​​Photo: Svanhildur Egilsdóttir, Marine Research Institute, Iceland.​​ 

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FEATURE ARTICLE - To catch or not to catch

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