Pacific Fisheries Review: US Fisheries – Technology and Sustainability

"Technology is neither good nor bad; neither is it neutral." Melvin Kranzberg's First Law of Technology


December 1, 2017

Sonar technology has advanced past the point of directing the vessel to "some fish" and now can direct the vessel to the "right fish". Photos courtesy of Simrad.

Fisheries in the US are well regulated.

That is due in part to technological advances over the years that allow us to make better stock assessments. There is however a lot of guesswork in the equation and fishermen and fishing boats are not as utilized in the equation as they should be. Technology is available to help.

Technology is available to help gain the knowledge to educate ourselves to be good stewards of the resource.

Technology for Sustainable Fisheries; Sustainable is the keyword here. Technology is how this is achieved. There are three primary groups of people in the sustainable equation:

First are the consumers of fish. The goal of almost all fishing activity is to feed people. Consumers are being educated about the positive health aspects of fish consumption. The seafood Industry is educating consumers about the sustainability issues of seafood as well as educating the consumers about the taste, texture and diversity of fish. The diversity of fish vastly outpaces the diversity of land-based animals that are consumed.

Consumers drive the seafood Industry and the foundation of the seafood industry is the fishing industry.

The second group is the scientists, and it is with this group that technology can have the earliest and potentially the greatest impact on the fishing industry. Use of the technology in the process to determine quotas varies from region to region. Acoustics (echosounders and sonars) are used extensively on the West Coast and in Alaska, but are used less extensively on the US East Coast. This is true even when the technology is available. The use of technology-equipped industry charter vessels is also more accepted on the West Coast than it is in the East. Science is also sometimes hampered by the way the original baseline was created, and in an attempt to be consistent, old processes and equipment remain in use. This is a defensible position but there are times when the current technology is underutilized for the sake of an outdated process. There is frustration from continuing to do the process "wrong" because that is the way it has always been done. This is an example of technology outpacing the acceptance of that technology.

Boatswain's Locker

This brings us to our third group of people; the fishermen. This is where the technology is most used although not by as many as can benefit, yet.

Fishermen are traditionally individualistic. This has in the past resulted in holding of technological advantages close to the vest to have an advantage over one's competitors. This is understandable in an Olympic "race for the fish" environment. However as the fisheries have matured and the quotas are set via different quota and catch share schemes, the race for the fish diminishes. The value of stability becomes more apparent and sustainability becomes the priority.

Once the percentage of the total allowable catch becomes stable, fishermen can plan and make multiyear decisions. At this point the use of technology usually goes one of two ways; 1) "I don't need the technology. I have the fish and the knowledge" or 2) "I have the fish and the knowledge; I am going to invest in the technology for x and y reasons." The reasons are generally to reduce the time at sea and save fuel and expenses but there is always new pressure to reduce by-catch and this necessitates new technology.

Maintaining and increasing the sustainability of the fisheries is a prevalent attitude with fishermen. Fishermen are looking out for the resource. Fishing is a family business and a lifestyle, sustainability is ingrained in most fishermen and needs to become more understood by the public in general.

Fishermen's News Celebrates 75 Years

Technology use in fishing is always increasing. The application of the technology often goes well beyond the original intent, and this drives the technology and the tech companies forward.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

By-catch reduction is the necessity driving a lot of technological advances. Regulation and a desire to sustain the fisheries are driving the need for by-catch reduction.

Operating in an underwater environment generally requires the use of hydro-acoustic solutions to make measurements. The use of sound is a proven way to transfer data in the dark, deep subsea environment where light is lacking. The technology dates to 1935 when the first echosounder showing fish was recorded and published. Refinements have been made ever since.

The "Holy Grail" of fisheries acoustics technology is species identification. This is elusive from an exact scientific perspective. From a commercial fisheries aspect it is much closer to a reality. See this image, catch these fish, repeat. Fishermen have the advantage of ground-truthing the situation every day. The reality is that there are times when "see this image, catch this fish" results in a catch of the wrong species. At those times a vessel or sometimes a fishery is closed down. These situations drive the technology forward.

Advances toward the "Holy Grail" of species identification continue. Technology can now deliver, with accuracy, individual fish size and biomass in an area. The ability to show fish behavior is also available and useful. All of these advances require a stable image of single fish inside a school or an ability to define fish from the bottom. This requires a high ping rate, a short pulse length, an efficient transducer and good signal processing ability. The days of "presence or absence" echosounders are over. Detail is needed and details are available.

The ability of today's echosounders and their use for stock assessment and by fishermen to target the "right" fish is based on accuracy within the system. The ability of the system to output or display the target strength of the fish is key. Scientists need the target strength value and fishermen use to target strength number to display length or weight, if the species is known.

For the system to be accurate the transducer's characteristics must be known. Once the transducer is understood a split-beam technology can be employed to locate the position of the fish inside the transducer beam. Once the split-beam technology is employed the target strength can be determined and the fish length can be accurately presented. This technology has been around for 30-plus years and is continually being refined.

Adding a broadband or CHIRP component to this technology allows a "signature" from the target to be displayed. This signature will be similar for fish of the same species and very different for fish of other species. This allows fishermen to pick out by-catch species inside a school of the target species. This is useful for salmon inside a pollock school or rockfish inside a hake school. This is the current state of the technology of echosounders.

Accurately deriving information from an echosounder on some species is difficult because they are high in the water column or scatter in advance of a vessel. This has necessitated the use of sonar to look at the school before the vessel is over them or to look at the school from the side. Forward or side-looking sonar has been developed for fishery research applications and is now available to fishermen. Fishermen have long employed sonar to direct them to the fish but the technology is now advancing beyond the "presence or absence" stage to the point of giving fish size biomass and increased indication of behavior.

Sonar technology has advanced past the point of directing the vessel to "some fish" and now can direct the vessel to the "right fish." This further contributes to decreased fuel, decreased time at sea and increases the ability to keep the factory running smoothly or to deliver fresher fish faster for the catcher vessels.

Philips Publishing Group

A lot of focus is on advances in acoustic technology and these advances have great results, however there is nothing quite as accurate as the human eye. Therefore the ability to put cameras underwater and bring a live picture into the wheelhouse has long been a goal. This goal is now being realized. Cameras – even low light cameras – have very limited range underwater, particularly at depth. But for low opening trawls or areas around excluders or in front of the cod-end cameras have great potential.

With a camera, species identification is easy. With this knowledge fishermen can target or, more importantly, avoid particular species. This has the potential to greatly reduce unwanted bycatch and as the technology advances to actively exclude non-target species or the wrong size of the target species.

If You Run From Technology It Will Chase You

The technology of today allows the fishermen to make better decisions individually. For the greatest benefit to the industry as a whole, the use of technology needs to expand to more vessels. A lot of technological advances are slow to be accepted because fishermen are both conservative with respect to money and skeptical when it comes to the claims about the wonder of the new technology. Education is the answer. Fishermen educating each other in the new advances and manufacturers educating themselves in the needs of the fishing industry and presenting the potential of technology.

The advances march on and those that sign on to use the new technology usually prove the value and most certainly drive further advances. The return on the investment is positive for all parties over time.

Meshing Technology with Fishing Science and the Future

The future is not as full of doom and gloom as is being presented from certain segments of society, usually in the form of "environmental science." This is reflected first hand from fishermen, accounts from fishermen and now more and more from the scientific community. Look at recent reports from Fishery Scientist Dr. Kevin Stokesbury of SMAST Dartmouth, Massachusetts, who has pioneered the use of cameras and open cod ends to show that 20 minute tows in random areas of the ocean might not be ideal for accurate stock assessments. Look also at the recent testimony of Dr. Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington who in his Senate testimony has documented the success in rebuilding the US Fish Stocks and is quieting those that push the idea that fish are almost gone.

Technology is used in the fishing industry every day. Technology advances are driven by necessity. At times necessity will be driven by regulatory issues, which will come in the form of "you can't do this or that". Hopefully necessity is more often driven by positive factors, like the consumer's desire for more variety and fresher fish. Or the desire to spend more time at home and less time at sea. Fishing technology makes that possible.

A modern wheelhouse is packed with displays to track the gear and the fish, allowing for a better and more targeted approach. Photo courtesy of Simrad.


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