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The First Wave Of Precision Fishing in Alaska

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The fishing industry is at the core of many Alaskan communities, providing food, income, and cultural significance. While Alaska fisheries are among the best managed in the world, challenges exist with climate change among the most prominent.

In 2021 alone, changes in the salmon and crab fisheries have been dramatic. These changes are devastating to the marine ecosystem and the livelihoods of nearly 60,000 people directly employed in the fishing industry.

Serious declines in salmon

Over the past decade, Chinook and chum salmon populations have seen steady declines with this year’s weak salmon runs leading to moratoriums on fishing. Warming river and ocean temperatures are reducing salmon recruitment while fluctuations in algal blooms and increased competition from other species has resulted in significant changes in food availability for the salmon. Furthermore, Chinook and chum salmon are caught as bycatch in the trawl fisheries by the commercial pollock trawlers. Although bycatch isn’t the driving force behind the decline, it is contributing to the problem.

Alaskan crabbers are feeling the heat

Weakness is also being observed in other fisheries. Declining snow crab abundance resulted in an 88% decline in quota and the red king crab fishery has been closed. The combined effects of these events have had a huge financial impact on Alaskan crabbers who have earned more than $200 million from the two harvests in past years.

Significant reductions in sea ice have caused the snow crab and red king crab populations to decline. Scientists believe that the warming waters have increased the predation of cod, who normally stay out of the colder water, and increased stress to the crabs. Bycatch of crab is another challenge with more than 235,000 harvested unintentionally so far in 2021.

So how will fishing communities and Alaska’s seas thrive in the face of unprecedented threats to the ecosystems that support them?

Precision Fishing is Now

Precision Fishing uses technology to enable fishers to measure the oceans, observe their fishing activities and respond to variations in fish stocks. It involves collecting data to allow fishing crews to better understand how the oceans are changing and the effect it has on their catches. Furthermore, technology is used to improve the selectivity of fishing gear to avoid bycatch of vulnerable species. As a result, fishing crews catch more of their target fish whilst reducing their negative impact on the oceans.

Precision Fishing is not a concept for a distant utopian future. Championed by start-ups like Blue Ocean Gear, Saildrone and SafetyNet Technologies, it is practical, reliable, and already being implemented in some Alaskan fisheries. Here are two examples of how Precision Fishing methods are helping Alaskan fishers and seas to thrive.

Save time, fuel, and money with Smart Buoys

Blue Ocean Gear is pioneering smart buoys for use in wild fisheries, aquaculture, and other applications. Their seven-inch buoy collects and transmits valuable data such as location and temperature to users at sea or onshore. This technology offers several advantages over the status quo.

The buoys were first deployed in Alaska for use in the Bering Sea king crab fisheries in 2020. Harvesters report fuel and time savings due to the ability to quickly locate fishing gear in difficult tides or weather conditions. Globally, ghost gear is becoming an increasingly worrying issue. However, there were several cases where the smart buoys prevented gear loss, resulting in reduced gear expenses and marine debris.

Blue Ocean Gear has ongoing conversations with gear users across Alaska and the West Coast with customers interested in deploying the buoys in pot, longline, gillnet, and other fisheries.

Fish stock surveys completed by unmanned drones

Saildrone offers another example of an innovative company advancing Precision Fishing. The start-up offers unmanned drones up to 72-feet in length. These drones are equipped with a full suite of sensors, cameras, communication uplinks, and sounders. Powered primarily by wind, the drones can complete missions exceeding 180 days. The company has completed projects worldwide, including a circumnavigation of Antarctica, real-time hurricane monitoring and more than seven missions into the Arctic.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented annual ship-based surveys of pollock stocks in the Bering Sea. Thankfully, Saildrone was able to complete the survey, preserving valuable data continuity needed to manage the nation’s largest fishery. The mission was conducted over five months with three unmanned drones travelling more than 6,000 miles.

How does SNTech fit into all this?

At SafetyNet Technologies, we have been spearheading Precision Fishing for several years now. Inspired by the concept and advancements of Precision Agriculture, we developed a suite of Precision Fishing tools to help crews optimise their operations. We are currently collaborating with other technology providers to bring fit for purpose tech to the fishing industry.

At the moment, we have four products available to the fishing industry. Each product is designed in close partnership with working fishermen from around the world.

Pisces: Increase your gear selectivity

Pisces lights have been available for several years, helping fishing crews catch the fish they need and avoid unwanted bycatch. They work by using coloured LED lights to modify fish behaviour and increase the selectivity of fishing gear.

SNT-Cam: Peer into your Gear

Whilst working with fishermen, it became clear that they needed a tool to let them see inside their gear. With guidance from captains and crews, we are developing SNT-Cam, a gear-mounted camera that is nearing market readiness.

Enki: Gain insight into ocean conditions

A rapidly changing ocean is undermining years of fisherman knowledge. Climate change is altering seasonal patterns such as algal blooms and fish migration. More than ever, fishers need more data about the oceans. Therefore, we are creating Enki, a gear-mounted oceanographic sensor. By providing real-time measurements of temperature, salinity and turbidity (amongst others), the sensor will help fishers make better-informed decisions to suit the ocean conditions.

NetTag: Find your lost gear

Our final product will be of interest to any trap fishermen. NetTag is a small acoustic locator tag with many functions. It can reduce ghost gear by helping crews locate their lost gear quickly and easily with a range of 2 km and an accuracy of 1 meter.

Could you help to pioneer Precision Fishing?

We are looking to work with innovative businesses and fishermen in North West fisheries to refine the products and ensure their readiness for the challenges of the NW waters. We invite interested parties to drop by our booth 727 at the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle. Book a slot to speak to us. Come along to view our products and discuss appropriate trial protocols and support packages which we offer.

Special thanks to our co-authors, Garrett Evridge and Taylor Holshouser at Alaska Ocean Cluster.

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