Trawling Technology: What's New and on the Horizon


August 1, 2019

A net maker is testing models of the new "square" mesh trawls in a flume tank. Photo courtesy of Naust.

Trawling technology is often considered fairly simplistic and straightforward, especially when compared to the technological advances in electronics, robotics and even some forms of medicine.

But there are actually a handful of companies around the world that are currently on the forefront of developing and bringing to market new and innovative ways to trawl for fish.

Among them is SmartCatch, a Silicon Valley-based company that makes digital-oriented commercial fishing products. Company CEO Mark Dahm said that SmartCatch has not only introduced some groundbreaking products, but has also been working on new ones that could debut as early as this year.

"There have been a couple of things that have been accomplished, and then there are some things that we're working on," he said.

Among the things in development, Dahm said, are innovative ways to use smart cameras while trawling. One aspect of their work is in the realm of the smart camera being used as a data collector, with the information being formatted into a log, so that it becomes a "digital journal" about the point of capture.

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"It's collecting data in a format that's used for reporting to various entities, whether it's NOAA on the fisheries side, or whether it's into the marketplace," he explained, adding that SmartCatch has been working on the concept for about a year-and-a-half.

The company has also been working on way for a smart camera to co-exist on the same cable that a fishing boat's sonar uses.

"That'll be a game changer, because there is a handful of boats that have a third wire and a fourth wire cable, but there are a lot more that have just a single third wire cable that aren't willing to give up their sonar system just yet," Dahm said, "so the idea we're working on – and we should have it shipping by September of this year – is the ability to overlay and basically be able to use sonar and the smart camera on the same cable."

SmartCatch anticipates bringing the technology to market in the fall of 2019, or by the 2020 fishing season, Dahm said.

And that's not all.

"We're working on integrating species recognition and enumeration–or counting– capability for biostock assessments."

In other words, the company is working on developing technology that can count the number and types of fish as they're being trawled. It's a technology that some other companies, such as Norway-based marine electronics manufacturer Simrad, have also been working toward.

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SmartCatch technology works in conjunction with the company's DigiTech system, a suite of products that include a monitoring system with a live video camera, lighting, cables and sensors collecting data for analysis.

Cameras are something that Simrad has also developed for the purpose of excluding unwanted marine life from trawling nets, which is the next step in bycatch reduction, Simrad's Mike Hillers told Fishermen's News.

"Simrad has made some great strides this year in active exclusion," he said. "Active exclusion is the natural progression of the Simrad FX80 Camera system, which for the first time allowed the fishermen to see, in real time, the activity via a video link to the trawl."

"Quite naturally, seeing activity on the trawl at depth while fishing is awesome, but of course, seeing now inspires action," he added. "Particularly if whatever is being viewed is not right."

The Internet of Things

Much of SmartCatch's product base is tied into the Internet of Things (IOT), which is the term for groups of everyday electrical devices that use tech to connect online, such as printers, refrigerators, headphones and speakers.

"Everything that we work on starts with being an Internet of Things type of device, and the Internet of Things device can basically feed a full digital signal in software and allows you to propagate other products in other services," Dahm explained.

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In addition to working on future technologies, SmartCatch has also pioneered some tech that has come into use in the past few years, such as the aforementioned use of smart cameras on trawling vessels.

"And when I say smart camera, I mean a full, real-time high definition video on existing cable types, Dahm explained to Fishermen's News. "The ability to make this (camera) work over 2,500 meters of cable is not a trivial thing. And in the past, it has only been able to work on a very specialized, very high-fidelity cable."

But to be able to propagate this smart camera technology against multiple camera types, he said, is a big breakthrough.

The technology had been in the works for a few years, and SmartCatch was able to start shipping systems to multiple companies in the last year.

In addition, the company also has something on the horizon in partnership with seafood processing equipment manufacturer and provider Baader Group.

"By virtue of having this Internet of Things technology at the point of capture, you can help optimize the chain of custody in the seafood processing capability," Dahm explained. "That's an area of collaboration, and pilots that are coming forth. We haven't produced a product yet, but our intention is to integrate."

The project has been in the works since February, he said.

We're shooting to have a product in place by next year – a proof of concept. It's an iteration of taking an Internet of Things device, connect it to a blockchain or another software structure that has security and integrity to it," he said.

To sum things up, Dahm said that what makes his products so innovative is that they utilize cutting-edge technology.

"The real groundbreaking differentiator, if you will, is really in the heart of having a full digital network, whereas historically, these have been analog sensors," he said. "Once it's digital, you can start doing much more manipulation with software, you can plug it into a blockchain, you can do analytics on it and produce actionable insights."

Trawl Doors and Netting

Another company seeking to advance trawling technology, but in a different manner, is Nor'Eastern Trawl Systems – better known as NET Systems – a Bainbridge Island, Washington-based trawl gear and services company.

"There is constant improvement to technology in trawl. The greatest number of improvements are coming from the electronics manufacturers," NET Sys sales representative Brian Fujimoto said. "For NET Systems, we recently unveiled our latest trawl door manufactured and designed on Bainbridge Island, the Series 3000."

The Series 3000 is the company's latest in a series of high aspect ratio midwater trawl doors that allow the trawl to fish throughout turns.

"The second new development for NET Systems," Fujimoto continued, "is the acquisition of our newest Ultra Cross loom. It is the only one of its kind on Earth. It has the ability to manufacture Ultra Cross netting 200.5 meshes deep, a first. In the past there have only been machines making 100.5 mesh deep netting."

The two main factories for Ultra Cross, according to NET Systems, are on Bainbridge Island and in Shimonoseki, Japan.

The company is already well known for its Ultra Cross knotless netting, which is used for heavy duty commercial fishing. A version is also used as netting to protect fans from foul balls at Major League Baseball parks.

"Ultra Cross Dyneema is the strongest and most stable netting on Earth," Fujimoto said. "All of our competitors on the West Coast buy Ultra Cross. We ship Ultra Cross globally to most of the major trawl manufacturers, including the world's largest."

Regarding improvements in trawl nets and doors, Fujimoto said that anticipates no major improvements in the near future.

"We have nothing in the works at this time," he said. "What we are working on currently is an expansion of our Ultra Cross netting factory."

Twin Rigs, Smart Nets

Other technological advancements on the horizon have become part of the industry mainstream in other parts of the world, but have yet to become commonplace in the North American market. One is twin rig fishing, the other being so-called "smart" netting.

Twin rig fishing is a technique that's popular in Iceland and elsewhere in Northern Europe, according to Helgi Kristjánsson, with Iceland-based industrial design company Naust Marine.

So what is twin rig fishing?

"Fishing with two trawls in parallel at the same time; it will increase the fishing at least 50 to 60 percent, compared to fishing with a big single net," Kristjánsson explained, adding that fuel consumption would only increase 15 percent at the same time.

"This is a very efficient way of trawling for species, like cod, ling, flat fish (sole, flounder) and rock fish, when the fish is spread and not in firm shoals," he said. "This would be optional to use after the main fishing season is over and catch rate has reduced."

Regarding "smart" nets, several Latin American countries – Colombia, Brazil, Suriname, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico – are in the midst of a project that aims to make changes in trawling net technology and cut down on the number of bycatch, or fish that are unintentionally captured in netting when they're not the type being fished for.

The project, under the leadership of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is known as the Sustainable Management of Bycatch in Latin America and Caribbean Trawl Fisheries. It consists of testing net prototypes that reduce the negative effects of trawling on marine biodiversity while at the same time, still catching shrimp, which is the second-most exported marine life of Latin American and Caribbean fisheries, after tuna.

The "smart" nets being tested as part of the project are similar to traditional nets in that the lower part expands into a bag shape when it's in the sea. The upper part of the net, however, has a larger woven mesh, which allows larger bycatch to swim out. There's even a window-like hole in one portion of the netting that allows non-shrimp to escape.

Preliminary results show about 20 percent fewer bycatch and discarded marine life than before, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO.

Although some fishermen have been found to have earned less money due to catching fewer fish, the FAO says that is made up for by lower fuel costs, since fishing boats don't have to use as much petrol while trawling with the lighter nets, since dragging them through the ocean requires less energy.

The five-year study, which began in 2015, is scheduled to end next year, and a full report released sometime after that. And after that? Perhaps widespread use could eventually follow in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Photo courtesy of Simrad.


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