24 April 2024

COP28 Series: Oceans And Fishing

J A Kemp LLP


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The Ocean was a key topic at COP28, with sustainable fisheries and innovative solutions to reduce the impact of our fishing industry on the environment being of particular interest.
UK Environment
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The Ocean was a key topic at COP28, with sustainable fisheries and innovative solutions to reduce the impact of our fishing industry on the environment being of particular interest.

Fish are one of the only animals that we still actively hunt in large numbers for food, but our methods of fishing have devastated the biodiversity of our oceans and the marine ecosystems within them. The mid-20th century saw a global rise in fishing and large fleets of fishing vessels were scouring our oceans. By 1989, the fishing industry had reached its peak and ever since yields of target species have declined. In 2003, it was estimated that the boom in industrial fishing had whittled the number of large ocean fish down to a mere 10% of the pre-industrial population.

Aquatic food has high nutritional value and is often rich in protein, essential fatty acids and vitamins and minerals. The world's population is expected to rise to an estimated 9.7 billion by 2050 and this increase will result in an even greater need for this accessible, lean protein source. Also, aquatic food, such as fish, has a relatively low carbon footprint (compared to comparable land-based food sources) so could play a crucial role in a dietary shift to reduce carbon emissions. Well-managed, sustainable fisheries are therefore likely to be crucial in preserving marine biodiversity and the health of aquatic ecosystems, whilst maintaining the future of this food supply.

Sustainable fisheries – How can we do it?

Despite the gloomy statistics, steps can be taken to reduce the impact of this industry on the environment, by both decreasing carbon emissions and protecting the biodiversity of marine ecosystems.

Initiatives which could reduce carbon emissions associated with fishing include:

  • Use of biofuels to power fishing boats, refrigerators, aeration machines and pumps used in aquaculture.
  • Using renewable energy sources (such as tidal, wind and/or solar energy) for marine fisheries and aquaculture systems. For example, in Indonesia a solar-powered machine for producing ice blocks to cool locally caught fish is being developed for small-scale fisheries. This de-carbonises energy and decentralises the "cold chain", thus helping small, local, sustainable fisheries to grow.

Undoubtedly, innovation of new biofuels, biofuel engines and methods of efficiently harvesting tidal, wind or solar energy will play a huge role in reduction of GHG emissions by the global fishing industry. However, as discussed in our earlier insight, there will be many demands on these sustainable energy sources.

Innovation for responsible and sustainable fishing practices

One of the major problems for marine biodiversity is "bycatch" – the accidental capture of unwanted marine species. As bycatch is not the target species, it is discarded and often unintentionally killed or substantially injured during the process. This threatens populations of vulnerable marine animals, especially megafauna such as turtles, sharks and rays, but also populations of smaller fish and sea birds, thus resulting in overfishing and diminished biodiversity.

However, researchers have been innovating methods to reduce bycatch since the 1990s.

Over the past decade, net illumination and the use of coloured LEDs to attract target species and deter bycatch has emerged as an effective and relatively inexpensive way of combatting this issue. Studies have shown that net illumination can significantly reduce mean rates of bycatch biomass by 63%, including 95% reduction in elasmobranch, 81% reduction in Humboldt squid and 48% reduction in finfish bycatch. Importantly, net illumination causes little to no decrease in target fish yield. Acoustic and chemical deterrents or attractors have also been shown to have potential for reducing bycatch.

Fishermen and innovators have also worked together to innovate new methods to reduce bycatch and bycatch mortality. Specially designed nets, turtle exclusion devices, artificial bait, auto-release technology, hook designs and magnetic and electrical deterrents are all recent innovations to help reduce or prevent damage to bycatch.

For example, SharkGuard is an electric pulsed device which mitigates bycatch in longline fisheries. Upon contact with sea water, the device creates powerful, short-range electrical pulses which deter sharks from approaching the hook (due to their electro detecting Ampullae); target fish cannot detect these impulses and so the yield is unaffected.

The use of AI technology is also being investigated to prevent and regulate bycatch. Smartrawl is an in-water fish sorting device that uses a camera to capture images of the trawl, an AI computer to assess the size and species, and a gate (controlled by the AI computer) to release or keep fish. Smartrawl was showcased at COP28 as a sustainable solution for the changing world and presents itself as a promising technology to help maintain the biodiversity of our oceans and protect one of our important food supplies.

The challenges of implementing innovation

It is possible for us to innovate our way back to healthy oceans and reduce the GHG emissions of fisheries without reducing one of our key food sources?

The emergence of new technologies such as those discussed above shows that a more sustainable approach to fishing and aquaculture is possible. However, innovation is only one part of the solution; new technologies can be expensive and require education, awareness and acceptance before they are adopted by fishermen.

The upfront cost of new technologies, whether renewable energy sources or other solutions, can be high, mean that many fisheries may not be able to afford to switch even if more sustainable practices are developed. Adoption of sustainable innovation from fisheries, especially those operating at smaller-scales, is likely to require aid from the private sector, donors, banks and/or government institutions.

For the greatest impact on the sustainability of our fisheries, the solutions will need to result in a financial benefit to fishermen as well as improving sustainability and/or helping the environment. For example, the financial burden of bycatch makes it probable that innovative solutions will be adopted rapidly. However, other solutions and innovation may be less attractive without external regulation or incentives.

J A Kemp LLP acts for clients in the USA, Europe and globally, advising on UK and European patent practice and representing them before the European Patent Office, UKIPO and Unified Patent Court. We have in-depth expertise in a wide range of technologies, including Biotech and Life Sciences, Pharmaceuticals, Software and IT, Chemistry, Electronics and Engineering and many others. See our website to find out more.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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