New technology reduces harm to marine species

'pinger' and battery
Innovative technology could prevent hundreds of thousands of marine creatures from being accidentally killed in fishing nets.

After 25 years working in the fishing industry and feeling appalled by the state of our oceans, I set out to find a solution. 

Hundreds of thousands of marine creatures are killed every year after becoming accidentally tangled in fishing lines and nets.

Unlike fish, marine mammals need to surface to breathe, so if they get entangled they drown. ‘Bycatch’, as it is known, is one of the most disturbing issues associated with commercial fishing and one of the biggest threats to a number of iconic species. 

Modern fishing gear, which is extremely strong and often can’t be seen, is very efficient at catching pretty much anything in its path. As the WWF puts it, ‘where there is fishing, there is bycatch’.

Slow progress

At least 300,000 dolphins, porpoises, and whales, 300,000 seabirds and 250,000 turtles fall victim to bycatch every year. It is the single largest immediate threat to cetaceans and some marine species are now in such a precarious position they could face extinction unless things change quickly. However, bycatch is largely avoidable.

There are at least 130 bycatch reduction agreements, regulations and legislations worldwide. But progress has been far too slow, and many fishermen are less than enthusiastic about embracing them.

A major hurdle to reducing bycatch to date has been the quality of available technology. Devices such as the acoustic ‘pinger’ – which can reduce the number of dolphins, whales and porpoises caught in nets by up to 95 percent – have existed for decades, but until recently the majority were expensive and impractical.

After 25 years working in the fishing industry and feeling appalled by the state of our oceans, I set out to find a solution. 

After 25 years working in the fishing industry and feeling appalled by the state of our oceans, I set out to find a solution. 

In 2016, I set up Fishtek Marine with my brother, Ben – an environmental engineer. Our mission is to pioneer new marine conservation technology and rapidly improve conservation efforts as a result. We knew we needed to develop products that would work for fishermen and the environment in order to stand any chance of making a difference. 

Expanding reach 

After rapid growth over the last two years, the multi-award winning Fishtek Marine is now crowdfunding, via Triodos Bank, to raise £900,000 of new investment.

Our aim is to expand the reach of the products we have already developed and to invest in developing new ones that could have even more of a positive conservation impact (e.g. SharkGuard, OrcaGuard, Turtle NetLights and Ropeless fishing).

Initially we developed the Banana Pinger, designed to be both effective and affordable. It is robust (able to withstand the harsh conditions of offshore fishing), and easy to attach to the net.

The devices can be fitted to gillnets – a wall or curtain of netting that hangs in the water  and can be four or five meters high and run for tens of kilometres. When porpoises or dolphins are foraging on the seabed they can’t see these nets and so they swim into them, get tangled up and die.

Dolphins and porpoises use echolocation to communicate and detect prey so pingers work by sending out a “randomised frequency sound sweep” every five seconds, which alerts them to the net’s presence, enabling them to avoid it.

Rapid expansion  

By providing a good quality, effective device, our aim is to make it attractive for fishermen to use pingers and to encourage legislators to pick up the pace on strengthening enforcement and implement new laws.

In January 2022, a new law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) will require any country exporting fish to the US to have marine mammal protections equivalent to those in the US — including measures against bycatch. The law could influence fishing standards in exporting countries including Canada, Chile, China, Japan, and Mexico, with the potential to significantly shake up the industry. 

In many fisheries, we believe our technology offers the most effective way for fishers to comply with the new law, taking us from a relatively niche market to a potentially massive global market in couple of years, with the added advantage of huge conservation gain.

By raising £900,000 of equity through Triodos Bank’s crowdfunding platform, our ambition is to grow the business to £10 million turnover within five years, while making a significant difference to marine conservation. 

The money will be invested in the sales and marketing of existing products, as well as funding the development, testing and marketing of four new products that will be launched over the next three years.

Shark bycatch

While pingers help protect animals that use echolocation, a different solution is needed to deter sharks. 

A quarter of chondrichthyans (shark, ray and chimaeras species) are threatened, according to the Red List criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Bycatch is a major cause of this threat, with many shark populations declining dramatically as a result of being caught on hooks in the high value tuna and bill fish longline fishery. 

Our team used the striking difference between sharks and tuna and bill fish: their acute sensitivity to electrical fields. We set about designing and trialling the SharkGuard, a device that creates an electric field which temporarily deters the sharks from the baited hooks. It is powered by a single AA battery and can be mass produced. The SharkGuard when fully commercialised could potentially save hundreds of thousands of sharks every year.

We’re working to make commercial fishing more sustainable, but if we’re going to make a real conservation gain we have to have more than just a few hundred devices out there.

By definition anything that is successful in terms of global marine conservation has to be effective, practical, have significant commercial uptake, and be produced and distributed in large quantities. Fishtek Marine is stepping up to the mark!

This Author 

Pete Kibel did a first degree at Oxford University and a Masters in Fisheries at Plymouth. He has worked for over 20 years in fisheries in the UK, Australia, Southern Africa and India. Pete is co-founder and MD of Fishtek Marine.