New fishing technology 'lighting the way' to sustainable future
ASU Assistant Research Professor Jesse Senko named recipient of $100,000 Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize for reducing bycatch of sea turtles, sharks with illuminated buoy
A buoy sits atop the rolling waves of the ocean, beaconing fishers to the day’s catch. But something sets this buoy apart from the others: An unassuming, solar-powered light blinks under the water’s surface, warning unwanted marine life away from the fishing nets below.
Jesse Senko, an assistant research professor in the College of Global Futures at Arizona State University, received a $100,000 Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for his development of a solar-powered light that doubles as a buoy to reduce bycatch of endangered sea turtles, sharks and marine mammals while maintaining target fish catch. The innovation is lifesaving for the marine animals it protects — and immediately implementable for fishers using their existing fishing gear.
For centuries, humans have turned to our planet’s oceans as a source of food and livelihood, heaving nets out to the watery depths to feed not only their own families but families across the globe. However, unsustainable fishing practices have endangered marine life through overfishing and the incidental capture of nontarget species, commonly referred to as bycatch. A problem-solver with an affinity for marine life, Senko knew from a young age that this was a realm where he could make a difference.
A community-minded approach to conservation
As an ASU student working on his PhD with School of Life Sciences Emeritus Professor Andrew Smith, Senko found that lighting up gillnets reduced bycatch. Where target fish such as halibut and yellowtail weren’t deterred by the lights, sea turtles, sharks and marine mammals saw the illuminated nets and, for reasons not yet fully understood, turned in a different direction. The buoy was a continuation of that work.
“The Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize really emphasizes not only innovations for conservation, but also bringing a benefit to the surrounding communities,” said Senko, who holds academic appointments in the School of Ocean Futures and School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “Decreasing bycatch saves both money and time, because the fishers don’t have to spend as much time and effort detangling bycatch from the nets.”
It also improves safety for the fishers involved. Senko said the fishing boats used in the Pacific or the Gulf of California are often 18–25 feet long. If the crashing waves and heavy, hand-pulled fishing nets don’t paint a perilous enough picture, Senko suggests adding a thrashing shark and several 300-pound sea turtles to the mix.
“When you have a bunch of bycatch in your net and you’re on the water like that, it can be really difficult to remove them,” Senko said. “What sometimes happens is that fishers will cut them out of the net, but then they are paying to repair the nets and not on the water fishing.”
The idea for the buoy came from a community meeting, in which Senko invited local fishers to brainstorm implementation methods for the light-up technology. A few minutes into the meeting, a fisher brought up the idea of an illuminated buoy. Senko was inspired. A buoy would be an easy tool to swap out, saving fishers money, time and — equally important — boat space. Developing the technology required collaboration from an engineering team at ASU, led by Associate Professor Jennifer Blain Christen, and insights from other recognized entities in the ocean and conservation space.
"Not only is this about a particular bycatch reduction technology, but it is also about how Jesse has managed to bring coastal fishing communities into the technology development space to ensure they have primary roles in bycatch innovation,” said John Wang, a fisheries ecologist at NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu and collaborator on the buoy. “This is helping to change the paradigm of how to successfully engage with coastal fishing communities worldwide.”
Senko is still evaluating what he plans to do with the Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize award money, but he knows the funds will support empowering coastal communities who are on the front lines of bycatch reduction.
This community-minded approach not only assisted Senko’s application for the Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize, but it also set an important example for conservation work. Jack Kittinger, vice president of Conservation International's Global Fisheries and Aquaculture program, said that marrying the nuances of nature with its surrounding communities is an important way to enact change.
“Conservation in the Anthropocene is about meeting the needs of communities while protecting the nature we all rely on for life on Earth. Jesse's research is lighting the way, literally, to a sustainable future for community fisheries, protecting wildlife and livelihoods in the blue economy,” said Kittinger, who is also a research professor in ASU's School of Ocean Futures.
The buoy runs on solar power, emitting a blinking light that deters sea turtles, sharks and other large marine animals. The light had to blink to save battery life, but Senko said this turned out to be an advantage: The blinking lights did a better job of steering away the endangered animals than a static light. The buoy lasts approximately one week without sunlight on a full charge and can last several years without changing batteries.
“What I think is the greatest thing about this buoy is that it’s just another piece of fishing equipment,” Senko said. “When you introduce entirely new technology to a system that gets the job done, you’re bound to get some pushback. This buoy is just that: a buoy. It just happens to light up the net. We aren’t asking anyone to do any major work in terms of charging it or changing batteries. This is something that fits seamlessly into the system they already have.”
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