Fast Company – World Changing Ideas

May 25 16Acknowledgements,Interviews,Panels,Press

Trawling nets snap up all kinds of ocean life by accident, decimating species that we don’t even eat. Isn’t it time that technology be used to help end this?

May 25, 2016


Fishing trawlers are good at catching fish, but not always the right type of fish. Up to a quarter of everything snapped up in U.S. trawl nets needs to be returned, estimates show. The fish is either the wrong size, the wrong species, or doesn’t meet official quotas.

Rob Terry argues that the fishing industry is years behind agriculture in this lack of precision. While farmers now employ all kinds of remote monitoring equipment so they can minimize inputs and maximize yields, fishermen are still using the same basic technology as they always did: basically one big net.

But Terry, founder of Palo Alto-based SmartCatch, thinks he has something that can change how fishing is done. He’s developed a camera-and-sensor system, called DigiCatch, that allows fishermen to peer inside their nets while they’re underwater. This visibility could help them to find the most suitable fish and avoid species that should be left alone, Terry says.

The DigiCatch is a four-foot metal tube suspended inside a trawler net. It contains a HD-quality camera, sensors for temperature, salinity, and water depth, and strong lights to illuminate the net even in murky conditions. The net is viewable from a ship’s wheelhouse, allowing fishermen to move on when stocks are low, or when fish are the wrong size or species. It can also help fishermen plan future trips, as they can review footage later to understand where the best trawls might be.

SmartCatch is also developing new kinds of nets that let fishermen discharge some of their catches or filter out before they get into the storage end at the bottom of the net.

“The technology we’ve been using is very effective for catching fish but it’s incredibly indiscriminate,” Terry says. “Since the mid-’60s, we’ve been pulling out more fish than we’ve giving time to regenerate, so we’ve collapsed a lot of the species we’ve been depending on for centuries.” Recent research estimates show that global catches are higher even than official estimates.

Terry, a former e-commerce director at Whole Foods, has been working on the products for three years and has a commitment from one trawler crew to start using DigiCatch. He admits, though, that finding funding is hard, as few investors are interested in the topic. “We need to ramp up our ability to produce products,” he says. “It’s not the sort of play that a lot of investors have experience with. But we think there’s hope in the so-called blue economy.”

Indeed, there could be tremendous value in managing the oceans in a more efficient way. The World Bank says we’re wasting at least $50 billion every year because overfishing is leading to a depletion of possible stocks. It’s surely time for better regulation of the industry, and better technology, too.