This High-Tech, Biodegradable Fishing Net Could Help Save Dolphins and Whales

A Spanish inventor hopes to replace abandoned "ghost nets" that kill marine mammals and other sea life.

(Photo: Remora)

Nov 20, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

A biodegradable fishing net lined with radio frequency identification chips promises to dramatically reduce the number of abandoned “ghost nets” that kill thousands of marine mammals and account for an estimated 10 percent of ocean plastic pollution.

Alejandro Plasencia, a Barcelona, Spain–based product engineer who grew up in the Canary Islands, calls his fishing net project Remora, inspired by the symbiotic relationship of the remora fish that attaches itself to sharks.

The net is treated with the biodegradable additive d2w, which the manufacturer claims would cause the polymer to begin to break down after four years. The net is studded with ultrathin RFID transmitters to pinpoint its location so it can be quickly repaired rather than abandoned.

A smartphone app would let fishing boat captains keep track of their nets. Plasencia’s main target is the commercial tuna operators who use the “purse seining” method of fishing, which deploys gigantic nets—some measuring more than a mile wide and 700 feet deep—around entire schools of fish.

“We wanted to find a cheap, simple, unobtrusive piece of technology that would work with the existing systems and cause less negative impact,” said Plasencia. “It wasn’t until we started working with printed electronics to embed the chips into the material that our prototypes went from very chunky to much lighter RFID devices.”

The idea is to encourage fishers not to discard their nets at sea, where they can continue to kill fish, dolphins, and whales for decades.

“In Belgium you get paid to turn in your nets, for instance, but in the Netherlands you have to pay because it’s considered industrial waste,” said Plasencia. “That’s why some fishermen dump them in the sea.”

It’s mostly an invisible problem, say conservation advocates, and there’s been little pressure on industry to innovate.

“Six hundred thousand tons of fishing equipment is lost yearly, according to the U.N., and if you walk on any beach, the majority of debris is fragments of net,” said John Hourston, director of Blue Planet Society, a U.K.-based commercial fishing watchdog group.

The nonprofit organization Healthy Seas, for instance, removed some 32 tons of netting from the North Sea this year. “It’s like picking up a cigarette packet in London—it’s a minuscule amount.”

Innovations like Remora, says Hourston, are long overdue, though the commercial viability and the effectiveness of the biodegradable additive need further scrutiny.

Plasencia estimates his production cost to be 15 percent to 20 percent higher than nets currently in use, but fishers would save money by being able to easily locate the nets for repair.

“We wanted to develop a product that would directly link sustainability to a driver of profit,” said Plasencia. “I hope there’s a company that sees that social and environmental responsibility is an issue to invest in.”

Innovation in fishing, says Hourston, is generally aimed at how to catch more fish while keeping the costs down.

“It’s one of the industries most set in its way,” he said. “We’re not going to stop commercial fishing at this stage, but the huge difference a biodegradable net and net trackers in conjunction would have, it could transform the industry overnight.”