How Technological Innovation is Changing Fishing

Jul 15, 2013

Weir fishing has a long history involving few technological changes.
Credit Heather Goldstone / WCAI

Innovation is a relative term. It all depends on where you're starting from. Here are three examples from New England's diverse fisheries:

1. Don't Fix What Ain't Broke

Weir fishing is a tradition that dates back to the Native American inhabitants of Cape Cod. The circular nets anchored with rough-hewn hickory poles look like something out of a history or anthropology textbook. Ernie Eldredge has been weir fishing in Chatham for fifty years, like his father before him. In fact, he still uses some of the same gear. He says they've tried different woods, but hickory is the only one that's strong enough and heavy enough to do the job. He does have a motor on his skiff, but otherwise, he says about the only "innovation" his industry has seen was the switch from cotton to nylon nets several decades ago.

2. Innovation in a Time of Crisis

Groundfish is New England’s most iconic fishery - cod, haddock, flounder. These days, they're mostly caught by trawl. But that wasn’t always the case. Over the past few hundred years, the cod fishery has gone through multiple technological revolutions – from the introduction of the dory to the highly controversial adoption of the otter trawl. Each new gear has been intended to make the fishery more efficient, but critics would argue they've just enabled overfishing. Now, Dr. Steve Eayrs of Gulf of Maine Research Institute, says technological innovation could reduce by-catch and increase fuel efficiency, making the fishery more sustainable - both economically and ecologically. But it's difficult to fund research and get fishermen to buy new equipment when they don't even know if they'll be fishing in six months time.

3. The Scallop Success Story

The Atlantic sea scallop fishery is among the most valuable in the United States. It accounts for more than $200 million in revenues each year, fully three quarters of New Bedford's fishery earnings. That's a major turnaround for a fishery that hit bottom twenty years ago. When federal regulators closed important scallop beds and imposed strict fishing reductions, fishermen turned to researchers at U Mass Dartmouth to help them prove that there were more scallops than traditional science indicated. Since 1999, Dr. Kevin Stokesbury and his colleagues have completed more than 150 video surveys, funded by the scallop industry, conducted on commercial boats. In addition, the fishery has adopted a system of rotating area closures, similar to crop rotations. The cooperation and innovation has paid off; harvests have more than doubled and the rebuilding of the scallop fishery is now widely considered a success story of cooperative research and innovation.