How to reduce the environmental impact of industrial fishing on marine life?

Despite the good intentions of the fishermen, the fishing industry has many negative effects on the marine environment. It is one of the biggest threats to seabirds trapped in nets. In addition, missing pieces of fishing gear end up on the sea floor, polluting the ocean with microplastics.

Can technological innovation contribute to reducing this damage? In this episode of Ocean, we’ll see how scientists and fishermen are working together to develop more responsible fishing.

The Berlingas archipelago, off the coast of Portugal, is a nature reserve and a breeding ground for shearwaters, cormorants, seagulls, and other seabirds.

Ana Almeida and Elisabeth Silva are responsible for the conservation of marine resources at the Portuguese Ornithological Society.

For years, they have helped local colonies of seabirds. On the main islands of the archipelago, they install artificial nests to help the mowing water raise their young. Although some bird species do well, others are threatened, and some have completely disappeared in recent decades.

“Seabirds are incredible! They are animals that evolve in three different environments: sky, land and sea. They have an amazing and amazing ability to adapt to live in water. They are really very resistant, and they are an excellent protector of our oceans. So if they experience degradation, it means that the sea is no longer in good condition and that we have to do something ”, Anna Dean explains.

According to her, seabirds are the group of birds most threatened by human activities and other inconveniences, in particular the Balearic shearwaters which are the most threatened species of seabirds in Europe. According to the predictions of scientists, if nothing is done, it will completely disappear in 60 years.

The number of seabirds in the world is declining due to fishing

Half of Europe’s seabird numbers are declining or considered threatened. Many of these birds are accidentally killed by the hooks and nets of fishing vessels. This represents more than 200,000 seabirds each year, or one bird every three minutes that dies in European waters.

Among the many reasons for the decline in seabird numbers, bycatch is one of the most important.

What are the solutions?

In the Berlingas archipelago, conservationists are working with fishermen under a European Union-funded program aimed at protecting birds in a simple and affordable way.

These anglers use a long line with hooks that floats on the sea’s surface, and birds that dive to catch the bait can snag, injure, or even kill them. For fishermen, these accidents are not only frustrating: they damage their gear and reduce their catch.

“We do not like it, because in addition to catching the animal, it disrupts our work: if a bird is trapped, no fish will be caught in this whole area, Fisherman Francisco Nunes says.

Researchers have tried many ways to keep seabirds away from fishermen, but what seems to work best is the use of a “scarecrow.” It flies like a kite, looks like a predator, and can be placed in the sea near fishing lines, frightening real birds away from the danger zone.

“Birds stay away, which reduces the risk of bycatch. It must be said that this is a very good result, as it is a very simple and useful tool for both birds and hunters”, Elizabeth Silva explains

The research project “MedAves Pesca” is currently evaluating the results in order to contribute to the protection of seabirds in other parts of Europe and the world.

Plastic is a big enemy of marine animals

What about life under the sea? Lost fishing nets have been catching marine animals for years. Extracting it can be expensive and risky for divers. Over time, fishing nets break up into small pieces that end up in the food chain and on our plates.

At CIIMAR, the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine and Environmental Research at the University of Porto, scientists study microplastics that come from fishing gear that can cause various damage to marine species, but also spread harmful germs.

“The nets are made of plastic, which fuels the problem of plastic contamination of our water. It breaks down into small pieces and then turns into microplastics, which end up being absorbed by the fish and ending up in the food chain.” , warns Marisa Almeida, an environmental chemistry researcher at CIIMAR.

“There are bacteria and microorganisms that stick to the plastic. It’s like a new home for them. So the problem is not just physical because microplastics can act as a carrier of other pollutants towards all the animals that eat them,” Marine ecology researcher Sandra Ramos adds.

So it is much better to find the lost network and restore it before it breaks to smithereens. To come up with solutions to the problem, CIIMAR researchers collaborated with robotics engineers from the INESC TEC Institute as part of another European project, called “NetTag”.

Together they design a robot called IRIS that can find its way underwater thanks to acoustics and artificial intelligence.

“This robot is developed to help fishermen find lost objects, such as lost fishing nets. For this, the fishing nets are equipped with a small sensor, which will be used for the acoustic device. So it looks like this little cylinder we see here. When we introduce the robot underwater, The robot starts beeping, asking if there is anyone around. This beacon will answer”Explains Alfredo Martins, Senior Researcher in Robotics at INESC TEC/ISEP

“This way, the robot can go into the net on its own. That way, when the fishermen want to recover their net, they throw the robot into the water, and the robot can start searching,” Researcher continues.

Is this robot effective in real conditions?

Engineers are fully satisfied with the operation of IRIS in its pilot phase. But will it be able to perform well at sea, with all the underwater currents, obstacles, and limited visibility?

To find out, we go on a trip with local fishermen. They say they hate losing their networks which is expensive to replace.

The researchers dumped the net, equipped with an acoustic beacon, into the sea, then deployed the IRIS robot to find and return it. They claim that these acoustic beacons are inexpensive and can be placed anywhere on fishing nets without affecting their cost.

The robot is supposed to be easy to use and affordable enough to be shared between a few fishing vessels.

“Usually a robot like this belongs either to the harbor or to the fishing association. And if one needs to retrieve fishing gear from under the water, or check something and see what’s going on in a particular place, they can use this common technology,” Alfredo Martins says:

With the prototype nearing completion, the researchers hope to find a partner to commercialize this robot in the near future. They want to give the fishing industry an additional tool to reduce its impact on the environment and better protect marine life from accidental damage.

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