Bright idea

As the landing obligation – aka the discards ban – approaches its next phase, engineer Dan Watson is working on a novel means of ensuring fishermen only catch the right kind of fish: light.

Over the last few years the selectivity conundrum has undoubtedly been one of the hottest topics in the fishing industry. With the initial phase of the landing obligation beginning in 2016 for demersal fisheries (for an explanation of all this, click here), the need for inventive solutions and outside-the-box thinking is more pressing than ever. This push for new ways of catching the fish you want while avoiding those you don’t has attracted the interest of many people who are eager to help find solutions to the difficult problems facing fishermen.

One such person is Dan Watson, a mechanical engineer and founder of SafetyNet Technology Ltd. Dan’s previous work includes designing applications for satellite technology for the UK’s space programme, though recently his projects have brought him back to earth and beneath the waves.

“My interest in fisheries started at university,” says Dan. “I read an article about discarding in UK fisheries and thought that the problem would be an interesting premise for a technical project. That captured my interest and ultimately using light as a tool became the focus of technology development at SafetyNet.”

The SafetyNet team design and build devices that can be used to test how fish react to light as a means of increasing selectivity. Their first creation was a series of rigid, illuminated rings that could be fitted to the top panel of a trawl in order to reduce unwanted catches of juvenile fish or non-target species by allowing small fish to escape.

“The rings were made of durable materials and could be fitted into the mesh of the trawl,” explains Dan. “The aim was to use the fish’s natural behaviour to attract them to openings in the net through which undersize fish could escape. In the dark depths of the ocean the light rings were intended to serve as a high contrast exit sign for small fish during trawling, with the goal of avoiding landing juveniles – if they were a quota species – and damage to the catch by crushing or pressure changes in the cod end. Since then, our work has widened to include the development of an array of devices looking at how light can be used to alter the behaviour of fish in a trawl.”

As fishermen well know, avoiding juvenile fish safeguards future stocks and saves them having to use their quota to land fish that cannot be taken to market for human consumption. Areas of particular interest to the team are exploring how devices can be easily retro-fitted to existing trawls, and making them as user friendly as possible, including mechanisms for self-powering to simplify maintenance: “fit-and-forget” systems might eventually eliminate the need for battery changes. SafetyNet has already received a positive reception, winning the prestigious James Dyson Award for design and engineering in 2012.

“Initially I was naïve, thinking I would be able to find some sort of quick and easy solution to the issue,” admits Dan. “My hope now is that we can begin to use light as a tool to modify the behaviour of fish and as such the resulting catch. The concept of using light to aid fishing has been explored before but there has been relatively little done to turn experimental outcomes into a useful tool for fishermen. We are really starting from scratch here.

“As engineers, our aim is to produce something that is useful and easy for both fishermen and scientists and that will allow them to quickly test their own theories and promote innovation in the industry. The system has been undergoing rigorous sea trials off the coast of Scotland this autumn to ensure that the devices are able to withstand the unforgiving environments they will be exposed to during fishing. The pressure, temperature and physical damage our gear will experience during fishing is a real challenge, but that’s what makes the work so interesting.”

Dan and his team haven’t had an easy journey. We asked him about some of the major challenges he has faced and what he thinks the future holds for SafetyNet. “Well, as it stands we are not serving customers, so one of our biggest challenges has been just keeping the project funded and continuing to make progress. We have a good handle on the technology and we have a great group of people in the industry supporting us. Now we just need to keep going! In particular, Barry O’Neill from Marine Scotland, Mike Breen from IMR Bergen, and Tom Catchpole and Samantha Elliot from CEFAS have been very helpful.”

This article comes from the latest issue of Quay Issues, Seafish’s magazine for the fishing industry, available for free download now. To stay up to date with Dan’s progress, follow SafetyNet on Twitter: @SNTechUK.


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