Uptake of innovative fishing gear a social process

Social scientists contribute to basis of latest advice on innovative fishing gear.
Published: 16 October 2023

​Innovative fishing gears are developed to have less of an impact on target species, non-target species, and the environment. Efficiency and sustainability is the primary goal for gear innovations. The uptake of innovative fishing gears, however, is not straightforward. Gear uptake is a social process and involves a deliberate change. And there can be many factors for fishers​ that create barriers to these changes.

In 2020, the European Commission Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE) first requested ICES to advise on progress made from using innovative fishing gears within EU waters. What information was available on the type and range of innovative gears used in commercial fisheries in the EU? What was the rationale or objective for their use? Which technical specificities were there? What was the impact on target and non-target species and the environment in which they were deployed? What are the reported benefits or negative effects of these innovations on gear selectivity, sensitive habitats, and marine ecosystems?

To respond to these questions, ICES established the Workshop on Innovative Fishing Gears (WKING). This group developed a suite of criteria to define 'innovative gear' as well as a catalogue of 42 gears considered 'innovative' and stated that, “In general, cutting-edge technologies in fisheries should aim at achieving resource sustainability, improved animal welfare, enhanced food quality and security, and optimize opportunities, whilst supporting economic gains for fishers and coastal communities".

This was reflected in ICES advice to the EU Commission in 2020, where it was stated “ICES advises that technical innovations are always sociotechnical. The level of uptake and sociotechnical aspects associated with the innovation should therefore be part of the development of a more comprehensive state-of-the-art review".

Uptake of innovative gear
When the EU Commission asked ICES in 2023 to again evaluate the catalogue of gears considered 'innovative' and the level of uptake by the EU industry, an additional request was that ICES also explore the main reasons that prevented the use of innovative gear, including an analysis of the socio-economic trade-offs and propose ways to facilitate their implementation.

“This is a major step forward as the human dimension aspect of fishing gear is recognized. With their latest request, the EU Commission understand that there is are socio-economic and governance aspects to the uptake of innovative gear, leading them to ask us to also look at the factors that hinder fishers uptake of fishing gear", states Nathalie Steins, Chair of the newly established Human Dimension Steering Group and member of the Working Group on Social Indicators.

To address the request, the Workshop 2 on Innovative Fishing Gears (WKING2)​, chaired by Antonello Sala, Italy and Julia Calderwood, Ireland, was established. In addition to experts in gear technology, many of whom are members of the Joint ICES-FAO Working Group on Fishing Technology and Fish Behaviour (WGFTFB), social science experts from the Working Group on Social Indicators (WGSocial) and Working Group on Economics (WGECON) attended WKING2. This allowed the workshop to look at gear innovation from a multidisciplinary perspective, including analysis of behavioural drivers and socio-economic trade-offs.

There are many different factors that influence whether fishers use newly developed gear. Investment cost and potential loss of commercial catch with a more selective gear are frequently cited. Fishers will say, “Well, it's okay if we all use it because then we all lose that catch. But why should I be the only person who's using it, when I don't get any more money in the market?". Usability is another factor. Sometimes new gears work on a research vessel, but when transferred to a commercial vessel, they are more difficult to handle, do not fit, or need a more adaption. There are also legal barriers. A gear may be prohibited, so while experimentation may show effectiveness, fishers are not allowed to use it.

“There is no generic reason why fishers don't take up certain gears", says Steins, “it depends on the context you're fishing in. We carried out a literature review and looked at factors that have influenced the uptake of more selective fishing gear globally – and there are many factors that impact uptake, for example a technical problem, or loss of commercial catch and value in the short term. We organized these factors using the PESTEL framework (political, economic, social, technological, environmental, legal), identifying the different factors within the literature, and placing them under one of those letters of the acronym. This helped the analysis of all the gear technologies and whether it had been a barrier to the uptake of that specific fishing gear, or whether it had incentivized the uptake of the gear".

Sharing experience
One example that highlights challenges for implementation of gear innovation is a situation where a fisher has developed a very selective gear. It really reduces the unwanted bycatch, but this fisher does not use it: “Why should I do it whilst my colleagues don't". A focus group was organized with fishers from the same fishery. The fisher who developed the gear made a presentation about the gear but said that as he would be the only one using it, he didn't because of potential loss of income. However, another fisher in the group said they didn't use it because it didn't fit their vessel, “I couldn't use it, but I would be happy to start using it if somebody would help me configure it for my vessel". In this case, this was different barrier to using the gear that had not come up in the conversation before. Once asked, “What would really incentivize you to use this?" the fishers said that they should equip five vessels with that gear, and then share the knowledge and experience they have with that gear. One fisher can develop a gear, but with five using this, the development will go much faster.

“These kind of things happen when you have organized conversations with fishers in groups. And I think this is where the social scientists can also help the gear technologists", says Steins, “Going forward with future work on innovative gears, we need social scientists' involvement alongside gear technology experts to consider and address challenges to gear uptake and incorporate a more developed PESTEL-framework to future advice".

Read ICES advice on innovative fishing gear.

Read the report from ICES Workshop 2 on Innovative Fishing Gear (WKING2).

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Uptake of innovative fishing gear a social process

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