‘Discarding and bycatch could quickly could quickly become a thing of the past,’ say research team

An underwater robotic sorting device which helps trawlers prevent bycatch by identifying and sizing fish and other marine life in real time is being developed.

Scientists from Heriot-Watt University, in partnership with Fisheries Innovation & Sustainability (FIS) and funded by the UK Seafood Innovation Fund, have developed Smartrawl, a device which uses AI technology to determine the individual size and species of marine life captured inside a trawl net, using images taken by an underwater stereo camera.

Dr Paul Fernandes, professor of fisheries science and technology at the Lyell Centre at Heriot-Watt University and inventor of the Smartrawl.

It then releases or retains each individual animal depending on whether it qualifies against a trawler’s intended catch using a computer-controlled robotic gate.

Developed by researchers from the Lyell Centre and the National Robotarium at Heriot- Watt University, the device has been designed in collaboration with the UK fishing industry.

It is able to fit into existing nets of all sizes of vessels, and requires no additional cables due to the device’s patented gate system, which works with the force of the water to rotate between open and closed states.

Using the system, fishermen will be able to programme trawls to catch specific marine animals according to their size and species, market conditions and allotted quotas, resulting in no discards or bycatch.

Components of the project have already been tested at sea, and further trials are scheduled for later this year in Shetland using the research vessel Atlantia, operated by the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The device uses AI technology to identify and size fish and other marine life in real time, with the aim of eliminating bycatch.

Inventor of the Smartrawl and scientific lead for the project Paul Fernandes, professor of fisheries science and technology at the Lyell Centre at Heriot-Watt University, said: “More than 4m tonnes of marine fish are unintentionally caught by trawlers around the world every year, as well as bycatch of sharks, rays, dolphins, critically endangered turtles and seabirds. The sad reality is that these creatures, more often than not, are returned to the sea dead or dying.

“Current methods used on trawlers are unable to distinguish between different species and animals or give skippers enough information to build an accurate understanding of the size of individual fish prior to capture.

“Smartrawl has been developed to ensure that vessels only catch the fish they’re targeting, releasing other animals back into their natural environment quickly and without harm. As a result, we’re confident that discarding and bycatch could quickly become a thing of the past and our precious marine life preserved.”

David Richardson, chief entrepreneurial executive at Heriot-Watt University, said: “Smartrawl presents a significant step towards benefiting the marine environment whilst protecting the business reputation of seafood producers and contributing to the UK economy.

“Significantly, it has the potential to revolutionise fisheries around the world by supporting them to be more commercially viable and sustainable.”

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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