Commercial fishermen who use trawl nets are now looking at how underwater camera systems can help them catch the fish they want and avoid all the others.

They’re hoping these systems will one day allow them to watch fish entering their nets and adjust the nets in real time to avoid unwanted bycatch.

One of the biggest problems with trawl nets today is that they’re not selective. Fishermen put them in the water and wind up catching everything in their path – including fish that are restricted.

Trawlers in Alaska who want to catch pollock also catch chinook salmon – which are protected and highly prized in other fisheries. Trawlers in Oregon and Washington who want to catch black cod and Petrale sole also catch halibut that they aren’t supposed to keep. When they catch too many of the wrong fish, regulations kick in and the fishery shuts down.

In those cases, chinook and halibut become “choke” species. They choke off access to other valuable fish.

Both of these fisheries have developed excluders they can add onto their nets to allow bycatch species to escape. But it’s hard to tell if they’re working under water.

Enter the FX80 underwater video camera. This weekend, a company called Simrad Fisheries of Lynnwood, Wash., took the first orders for this real-time camera system that fishermen can install onto trawl nets.

It’s the first of its kind, according to company spokesman Michael Hillers, who says he sees a market for this $140,000 system. He calls it “technology for sustainable fisheries.”

“Fishermen came to us and said if you make one, we will buy it,” he said. “The industry won’t be around if we are catching all the fish. Targeted fishing is the future.”

Helping pollock boats avoid salmon

The company’s first customer was Robert Desautel, president of Global Seas LLC. Five of the Global Seas fishing boats catch pollock in Alaska.

Desautel envisions a grand future for underwater cameras where fishermen will be able to see bycatch species entering the net and actually adjust the net in real time to avoid catching them. The more salmon bycatch the pollock fleet can avoid, the more pollock they’ll be able to catch, he said. The result could be $46 million in additional income for the entire industry.

“Part of the problem – and it will always be a problem – is getting rid of our salmon bycatch so we’re not affecting other fisheries. Right now we are fishing to avoid salmon,” said Desautel. “Imagine if we were able to selectively harvest fish. We could harvest all our fish. We can have cleaner fishing – better fishing. This is going to be the future here five years from now. Right now we’re fishing to avoid salmon. Next we’ll be fishing just for pollock.”

Helping groundfish boats skirt halibut

The West Coast groundfish fishery has switched to a catch share management program in part to control the problem of bycatch.

Under catch shares, each fisherman gets his or her own allocation of fish to catch, but every species that comes up in the net is subtracted from that total. The system gives fishermen an incentive to target the fish that are valuable in the marketplace and avoid the bycatch species that are restricted. If they catch too many of one species, they have to buy more shares from other fishermen or stop fishing for the season.

Waldo Wakefield, a groundfish fisheries biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the transition to catch shares has a lot of fishermen experimenting with new net designs.

He knows this because his agency has loaned cameras to 20 fishermen testing out halibut excluders.

“The idea is to support fishermen coming up with their own creative solutions to improving performance of fishing gear and to reduce bycatch,” he said. “They’re very actively looking at ways to get halibut out of their trawls.”

Command and control

The problem with new excluding devices is they can also free the fish the boat is trying to catch. An underwater camera can tell fishermen what’s going wrong, said Wakefield. But the Center’s cameras don’t offer live feeds like the new system that’s just being released by Simrad Fisheries.

“People have been anxious to have this kind of technology for a long time,” he said. “I think it’s really exciting.”

And it’s not just the camera itself that’s exciting, he said. The camera system can be built with multiple ports to give fishermen control over what’s happening in the net as the fish come in.

“You can tie into that and use it to have command and control over events you can activate on the trawl,” Wakefield said. “You could have a door or panel that could be shifted or opened to allow fish to escape if you see bycatch in the net.”