DISCARDS AND by catch could be history thanks to a revolutionary approach to fishing.
Imagine if every fish landed on a trawler was alive, in perfect condition and small fish, sharks and other species could be safely released underwater before a catch was lifted aboard.
That’s the reality a partnership project between scientists and three New Zealand fishing companies is touting.
The technology they’ve developed, known as precision seafood harvesting, does away with traditional trawl nets, and instead contains fish inside a large flexible PVC liner where they can swim comfortably underwater before being sorted for the correct size and species and brought aboard.
The design allows fishing vessels to target specific species and fish size. It also greatly increases protection for small fish that can swim free through “escape portals” and non-target fish, known as bycatch, which are released unharmed.
Once on the deck, the fish are still swimming inside the liner, meaning fresher, more sustainable fish for consumers and higher-value products for fishing companies using the technology, say those behind the project.
“This is the biggest step forward for commercial fishing in 150 years,” says Eric Barratt, the CEO of the fishing company Sanford and chairman of the industry body Seafood New Zealand. “What we’ve developed has huge benefits for fish stocks, the environment, consumers and our seafood industry. In the process we’re set to change the global fishing industry for the better.”
Sanford and fellow fishing companies Aotearoa Fisheries and Sealord are investing NZ$26m (£13m) into the project in a partnership with the New Zealand government, which is matching the investment. Researchers at the science company Plant & Food Research will be developing and trialling the technology on commercial fishing vessels. “The industry partners deserve a pat on the back for bringing fishing into the 21st century,” says the company’s science group leader Alistair Jerrett.
Jerrett’s team built their own underwater cameras to see into traditional trawl nets. He says the “aha moment” was asking: Why do we have to strain these fish out, why do we have to exhaust them, why do we have to damage them during harvest?
“The new system changes all of that,” he says. “One of the objectives is to make sure that any animal that reaches the surface, if we can’t select it out underwater, is delivered back to the sea unharmed.”
The head of Aotearoa Fisheries, Carl Carrington, says it’s good news for sustainable fishing and “enhances our access to sustainability-conscious consumers, improves product taste and quality, and is good for value growth”.
In Europe, fishing quotas mean that fishermen targeting a particular species or size of fish will throw back any “non-target” or “too small” fish that they catch. This is the practice Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been campaigning against.
Changes to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy were agreed this summer. While weaker than some had hoped, the new legislation includes the aim of rebuilding fish stocks, sets a legally binding target to end overfishing, and commits to reducing bycatch and discarding.