If you’re a seafood lover, as I am, you might want to skip this first paragraph. In 2006, the world marine fish catch was over 80 million tons. The fishing industry harvests almost 7,800 species commercially (an excellent article from Mother Jones about the commercial fishing industry as a whole can be found here). It’s done in a variety of ways, but one of them absolutely sucks. It’s called “bottom-trawling.” Bottom-trawling is a fishing method that involves catching the tasty critters that live on the seabed by dragging heavy nets, metal scrapers, and rollers across the sea floor and grabbing everything that gets kicked up in a big net that trails the rest of the apparatus. Basically, it’s like hunting squirrel by bulldozing the woods. Bottom-trawling clear cuts whole ecosystems by destroying the corals, tube worms, and sponges that compose those ecosystems, plus dislodging and/or killing anything else that it brings up. The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas concluded in 2002 that bottom-trawling is the most damaging fishing method to corals and other vulnerable species. The National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences reached a similar conclusion that same year. To make matters worse, because fish stocks are becoming increasingly depleted near shore, bottom-trawling operations are moving to seamounts, one of the most topographically fascinating and biologically crucial environments in the ocean. And here ends your uninterrupted string of guilt-free seafood dinners. Sorry.
Here’s why bottom-trawling is such a bite in the ass: of the 80 million+ metric tons of fish commercially caught every year, only 200,000 tons are due to bottom-trawling. That’s right…it’s not even all that economically important. So for a relatively paltry return (.25% of the total, not even 1 frigging percent), bottom-trawling does a disproportionate amount of ecological damage. It’s tough to conceive of a less advantageous cost-reward scenario. Compounding the problem, most bottom-trawling is done outside the various “exclusive economic zones” recognized by international maritime law; these waters are almost entirely unregulated. I’m pretty sure murder is legal out there.
So it’s a damn good thing that Cliff Goudey, like a white knight astride a magical seahorse (I can’t believe I found that picture), has come to the rescue, with this thing:
Much better than anything Steve Jobs could design, I’ll say that much right now.
Goudey is director of MIT Sea Grant’s Center for Fisheries Engineering Research, and has developed a scallop dredge that manages to get the job done without, you know…killing everything. Instead of a toothed dredge bar, Cliff’s invention has scoops shaped like shallow bowls that direct water downward, creating faint jets of water that can dislodge the scallops from the sand without disturbing the rich ecosystem beneath (the “benthic zone“). Also, the scoops swivel clear of any protruding part of the landscape (like sponges or coral reefs), preventing damage. The design has substantial benefits for overhead-conscious fishermen as well, since Cliff’s scallop dredge is more fuel efficient to drag behind your boat than a tangle of metal that eats the sand. I’ll let Cliff explain it:
“We built a small dredge fitted with four 11-inch hollow hemispheres positioned close to the seabed and mounted on pivots so that if they hit something they could deflect up out of the way. The hemispheres produce a downward directed jet of water that seems to have a profound effect on scallops when they’re hit by it. While a conventional dredge impacts subsurface organisms, this one does not.”
Ireland is considering using a version of the device as part of its scallop fishery management plan in the coming years. Visserijcooperatie Urk, a Dutch fisheries-equipment firm (like I have to tell you that) has also expressed interest in using the device to catch sole. The invention is part of a growing trend in commercial fishing to find more ecologically sound, fiscally sensible fishing techniques, and further reading on that trend can be found in this report.
Technological advances like Cliff Goudey’s are a good reason to have faith in the future of humanity. And heck, all it took was the collapse of 29% of all seafood species to get people to start paying attention! That said, the “All Things In Their Place Word of the Day” is: