GLOWING NETS DEVISED TO SCARE BIG ONES AWAY
BY WILLIAM LIN, WASHINGTON
When Ed Trippel was a boy, he spent endless summers by the waters of Ontario ‘s Georgian Bay , eagerly scanning the shoreline for fish. Even at age 10, he was astute enough to witness a disturbing environmental trend: His catches were becoming fewer and smaller.
The experience piqued his interest in marine life and led him to a career as a marine biologist, and now, nearly 40 years later, to become the recipient of an international award for his efforts to protect whales and dolphins and other large marine life from painful deaths in fishing nets.
Dr. Trippel, a researcher for Canada ‘s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, emerged last week as a winner of a World Wildlife Fund competition for developing innovative fishing gear, including the first glow-in-the-dark ropes.
His glowing product gives the North Atlantic right whale, whose population has dwindled to only 350, a chance to spot it before entangling themselves.
“Its like the yellow-green glow sticks on Halloween.” Dr. Trippel said.
Dr. Trippel, a researcher from St. Andrews , N.B., and his American team were named last Thursday as one of three winning entries in the International Smart Gear Competition, beating out 53 teams from Asia , Europe , Latin America and North America .
The competition, sponsored by the Washington-based WWF, is designed to encourage scientists, fishermen and others to create equipment designed to reduce unintentional deaths of sea animals entangled in nets. More than 300,000 marine animals – including dolphins, whales and harbour porpoises – are killed inadvertently every year, the WWF estimates.
“There’s no need to take any life needlessly, unless it’s for human consumption,” Dr. Trippel said. The prevalence of by-catching, the accidental trapping of unwanted marine life, is an important indicator of the ocean’s health, he said.
The glow-in-the-dark ropes stay lit underwater for up to 48 hours, he said. They can be recharged in the sun. They are still at the experimental stage, but the scientists hope that whales, with their superior vision, will be able to see the nets and avoid them.
Dr. Trippel’s award winning entry includes two other designs that modify the fishing gear’s chemical properties to make them safer.
One uses a “weak rope” that is half as strong as a conventional rope used with fishing nets. Made with barium sulphate, commonly used as a whitening agent in cosmetics, the ropes breaks if a mammal as heavy as a whale gets stuck in the net.
It was tested in the Bay of Fundy and the fishermen were pleased with it,” Dr. Trippel said proudly.
The third design modifies the net’s mesh to make sure that harbour porpoises no longer get stuck.
When modified with the same chemical, barium sulfate, the net reflects the porpoise’s sonar, which the mammal uses to detect objects and food. The greater acoustic reflection gives the porpoises a one- to two-second advance notice that they’re heading for the net. And because the net is also more opaque, the porpoises are more likely to swim away, avoiding entanglement.
The altered fishing gear costs about the same as conventional ones, Dr. Trippel said, but lasts 20 per cent longer.
The project began when inventor Dr. Norm Holy, a Pennsylvania chemist, and Don King, a Massachusetts commercial fisherman, got together in 1998 and approached Dr. Trippel, who had researched by-catching since 1993.
With Dr. Trippel’s government position, they were able to test the ropes in the Bay of Fundy , off the coast of Nova Scotia . Dr. Holy, who owns the rights to the patents, is now providing the experimental fishing gear through his own company.
As a government researcher, Dr. Trippel said he doesn’t want to make money from his work, but hopes the equipment will eventually be made mandatory worldwide.
Fishermen have an incentive to use modified fishing gear as well, Dr. Trippel said. The United States already has several laws that require the reduction of unintentional fishing, and Canada is considering stricter rules that impose stiff penalties for fishermen who inadvertently capture sea mammals past a certain amount.
As a result of the win, which comes with a $5,000 ( U.S. ) cash award, a commercial fishing operation in New Zealand has agreed to field test his team’s design, he said.
Glenn Blackwood. Director of the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources at Memorial University in Newfoundland and one of the judges on the 12-person panel, said Dr. Trippel’s idea is ingenious.
“I think it’s a great idea. A solution like this, if it indeed works, could result in saving thousands of marine mammals from death,” Dr. Blackwood said.
Edward A. Trippel, Ph.D.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
St. Andrews, New Brunswick
Canada, E5B 2L9