Sunday, July 10, 2011

Empty Oceans Follow-up

I wrote about the international fishery’s problems with by-catch about six weeks back, and how so many fish are being caught, killed, and then dumped overboard because they are not currently in season or are not in quota. Its a terrible waste, and is doing nothing to ensure we have a sustainable source of food from the ocean.
So the other day, gonzo filmmaker and favourite Victoria brother-in-law Karl Johanson spotted an article he thought would interest me. Recently, David Watson (currently a student in the Innovation Design Engineering joint course between the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London), submitted a design for a retro-fit for fishing nets designed to reduce the problem of nets catching too many small fish along with the commercial-sized ones to the Victorinox sustainable design competition. It is a very interesting design in that it addresses a couple of problems; that small fish can't escape commercial trawling nets, and that when they can escape, they can't see the way out.
I know that when I think of a trawling net being pulled through the ocean, I think of a curtain where large fish get caught up trying to pass through the holes. The reality is a bit different, where an open bag is pulled through the water, and the netting's holes collapse, allowing primarily water to pass through. Small fish either can't get out or are crushed in the mass of fish being swept up.
David Watson's design solution is fairly straightforward; reinforcing grommets that hold the netting open. And because the small fish often can't see their way out, he's included a couple of LED lights in each grommet (nicely powered by small turbine in the grommet, powered by the motion of the net through the water).

Its an elegant solution, one where you fit the net with reinforcing grommets and then pretty much forget about it. And its one solution that will never be used. Even if the cost of the grommets was a nickle each installed, the sheer number needed makes the cost prohibitive. And without effective international regulation, any requirements to install these grommets would quickly un-level the playing field, making adoption untenable. Such is the reality of a globalized food system: the worst and cheapest practices become the de facto standard.
Its the same on-land as it is in the oceans. If Ghana has no regulation on agricultural practices and produces cheap food, that's the food that will end up on your plate. Unless, of course you're paying attention and make a conscious choice not to purchase it. When it comes to fish, the Monterey Bay Aquarium produces a sustainable seafood guide that helps you make better choices about what goes on your plate. And keep in mind, that while prairie-farmed rainbow trout are a good choice, ocean-raised Atlantic salmon from the Pacific coast are a terrible choice.

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