'Smart Gear' could protect turtles, dolphins, whales
World Wildlife Fund honors 'real world solutions' for oceans
By Marsha Walton
(CNN) -- An American living on the south Pacific island of New Caledonia has reeled in a prize of $25,000 to help solve an ocean dilemma.
Steve Beverly's design of new "smart fishing gear" could help stop the accidental deaths of sea turtles that get caught in commercial fishing hooks and nets. The problem is known in the industry as "bycatch," and it includes the killing and maiming of dolphins, whales, birds and juvenile fish as well as turtles.
The World Wildlife Fund, an international conservation organization, launched the International Smart Gear Competition a year ago. The aim was to get ideas from fishing fleets, environmentalists and scientists to come up with realistic devices to reduce bycatch.
It is a widespread problem. Duke University reports more than 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherback turtles are caught each year by long-line fishing crews.
Beverly is a sort of Renaissance man in the ocean community. He has worked as a commercial fisherman, diver, tugboat operator and high school biology teacher. Currently he's working as the fisheries development officer for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
The organization was created after World War II to assist the people of south Pacific islands who had suffered during the war. It provides technical help in fishing, forestry, and public health.
"I had already come up with the idea, tried it out, and written a report about it when several friends told me about the contest," Beverly said.
His design takes into account the specific depths that sea turtles frequent, and contrasts that with the depths where the target species, like tuna, usually thrive. The idea is to weigh down the main line with lead weights, and to put the hooks deeper than about 325 feet.
Since turtles are most at risk in much shallower waters, they would be less likely to encounter the hooks. Some early tests of the gear also showed a bigger catch of tuna with the deeper hooks.
"It's a really cost effective technique," Beverly said. "For a 1,000 hook long line, it costs about $3,000 to set up, and that is a one time cost," he said. Beverly said he's explained the concept to long-line crews and they "got it" right away.
He first started tinkering with the idea several years ago, after meeting with some scientists on the problem of turtle bycatch. Some of the researchers had put depth recorders on sea turtles and found that they seldom spent time at depths lower than 300 feet, or 100 meters.
Other scientists, who had studied records from long-line fishing boats, confirmed that most of the sea turtles killed had been caught in depths shallower than 300 feet.
"My first idea was a little too complicated. But I persevered, then I got somebody to fund it, and tried it out in Australia. I had to work a few bugs out," he said.
Beverly believes his solution would be a win for both commercial fishing fleets and environmentalists.
While he said more tests are needed to prove the technique really does decrease bycatch and increase the catch of target fish, Beverly said he's anxious to get the word out.
"I'd like to get a little manual out to show how to do this," said Beverly. "Explain the technique, print it on waterproof paper, and get it out to fisheries departments, environmentalists, anyone else interested," he said.
How might the fishing industry react to this new gear?
The National Fisheries Institute, a U.S. association that represents fishing fleets, fishing processors and restaurants, worked with the WWF on the Smart Gear Competition.
"We certainly support this research," said Stacey Felzenberg, manager of communications and coalitions for NFI.
"It saves the sea animals not meant to be caught, it reduces wasted fish, and time. It is in our economic interest to reduce bycatch as well," she said. She said an important aspect of the competition was that the winning entries had to be reasonable in cost.
Along with the grand prize, the World Wildlife Fund also awarded two other prizes of $5,000 each.
Chemist Norm Holy, fisheries biologist Ed Trippel, and fisherman Don King worked together to invent a combination of glowing ropes and stiffer nets to help protect cetaceans: whales, dolphins and porpoises. Their design would help these marine mammals detect and avoid gill nets. More than 300,000 of these mammals are killed each year.
The other winners were four scientists from the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in India: M.R. Boopendranath, P. Pravin, T.R. Gibinkumar and S. Sabu. They designed a system of metal grids and net meshes to quickly sort mature shrimp and finfish, while letting juvenile shrimp and fish to swim away. In India the bycatch of these young fish and shrimp threatens their long-term populations.
The competition drew entries from 16 countries.
WWF and other sponsors of the Smart Gear Competition say they will help the three winning entrants make their products commercially viable.