Saving endangered marine life with illuminated fishing nets

A man throwing a fishing net into the water.

New fishing nets with LED lights are reducing bycatch. Image: AMIT UIKEY/Unsplash

Vanessa Johnston
Journalist, Reuters
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  • A recent study found that using LED lights on fishing nets could prevent endangered species such as sharks, sea turtles, and rays from being entangled.
  • Researchers found bycatch was down by 63% when using glowing nets, which helped ward off threatened species like sharks.
  • Conservationists have welcomed the development that could reduce the threat to non-target marine species.

Fishing nets that glow green with LED lights may prevent sea turtles, sharks and rays, including many threatened species, from becoming accidentally entangled, a study found.

Experts say bycatch, the unwanted fish and marine life caught by commercial fishing, accounts for 40% - or 38 million tons - of the world's global catch.

The study publish in the journal Current Biology compared the performance of regular gill nets -- vertical panels of netting that hang below the surface -- to illuminated ones off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.


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Overall bycatch was down by 63% and there was a 95% reduction in sharks, skates and rays caught in the glowing nets.

But why the LED lights work so well on some species like sharks remains a mystery.

"The honest answer is: we don't know," said Jesse Senko, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, who conducted the study. "We assume that it's probably some type of warning or deterrent for the animal."

Importantly, the study found no significant reduction in the amount of targeted fish caught.

Now, one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to make the illuminated nets more cost effective. The batteries for the LED lights are pricey and require ongoing operational costs, which may be especially hard on fishermen in developing countries.

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Senko is, therefore, experimenting with solar-powered lights, which he said can last for a week with only 30 minutes of sunlight.

Michael Osmond, a senior program manager for the World Wildlife Fund’s Oceans Team, who was not involved in the study, said the technology is promising - and badly needed.

"Most of (bycatch) gets thrown back into the water, and so it's wasted," Osmond added. "Bycatch is driving a lot of species toward extinction."

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