UNDP Supported project is Reducing bycatch with LED lights in Ecuador

Iluminar El Mar is an innovative project aiming to use LED lights to test the effectiveness of Bycatch Reduction Technologies (BRT) in the Ecuadorian gillnet fishery in Santa Rosa.

Supported by the UNDP ocean innovation challenge, the project is a collaborative effort between non-profit organisations The Leatherback Project, Mare Nostrum, and the fishing technology start-up, SafetyNet Technologies

Illuminating the Sea

The Iluminar El Mar project aims to test how effective LED light BRTs are in the Ecuadorian gillnet fishery in Santa Rosa. A combination of community workshops, human-centred design and scientific trials will be used to encourage the adoption of BRTs in this fishery. This approach will ensure testing and adoption of BRTs in the Ecuadorian artisanal gillnet fishery will support livelihoods whilst reducing bycatch.

‘Iluminar el mar’ translates to ‘Illuminate the sea’ which is exactly what this project aims to do. Over six months, eight gillnet boats will trial LED light BRTs. During this time, the boats will fish in pairs within a kilometre of each other. One boat will use lights on its gillnets and the others will not. Hopefully, this will highlight the effect of LED light BRTs on bycatch. 

Some boats using LED lights will test only green lights as a deterrent for sea turtles. The others will use Pisces LED lights to explore how different colours of light affect turtle, shark, and ray bycatch. The outcomes of these trials will be available in 2024. 

How can LED lights reduce bycatch?

LED lights can help you increase your commercial catch and reduce bycatch. Many marine species have strong reactions to coloured light. Furthermore, different colours of light will attract some marine species whilst scaring away others. LED Bycatch Reduction Technologies work by exploiting the behavioural response of marine species to coloured and flashing lights.

In 2016 (Ortiz et al, 2016), one study put green LED lights on gillnets in Peru. The researchers wanted to test how it would affect the accidental capture of green turtles in the fishery. Amazingly, the simple addition of LED lights to a gillnet reduced green turtle bycatch by 64%!

Similarly hopeful results were reported by a 2020 study that also tested green LED lights in the Peruvian gillnet fishery. The probability of turtles being accidentally caught was reduced by 74% compared to nets without lights. Moreover, the probability of cetacean bycatch was also reduced by an incredible 71% (Bielli, 2020). 

The Iluminar El Mar project will expand on this research in the Ecuadorean gillnet fishery. 

Ecuador’s gillnet fishery

Ecuador’s gillnet fishery has around 15,594 vessels. Consequently, many of Ecuador’s coastal communities rely on small-scale fishing as a source of income. Often, fishing forms the basis of the community. The Iluminar El Mar project aims to substantially reduce turtle and other megafauna bycatch without affecting the fishers’ target species. Managing bycatch could promote the long-term stability of both sea turtle populations and local fisheries. 

Fishers in Ecuador commonly use gillnets. Globally, gillnets are the largest component of many coastal small-scale fisheries. This type of fishing net hangs vertically in the water like a curtain. However, unlike the curtains you’d find in your house, gillnets can be up to 200m long. These nets are comprised of a fine mesh that traps fish by their gills- hence their name. 

Gillnets are favoured in coastal fisheries around the world because they are very effective at catching a variety of commercial fish species. Unfortunately, they are also effective at catching many non-commercial species. Studies show that gillnet fisheries often have high bycatch rates of threatened marine species such as sharks and dolphins resulting in population declines. 

The problem with bycatch

Sadly, Ecuador has high levels of bycatch. Five species of sea turtles call the waters around Ecuador home. Each of these species are either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. However, a 2018 report found that >40,5000 turtles were caught in fishing gear each year. This equates to 87% of the sea turtle bycatch in the Southeast Pacific. 

As well as sea turtles, many species of sharks are commonly caught as bycatch. A 2020 report found that >220,000 sharks were landed as bycatch in Ecuador each year. Additionally, cetaceans and seabirds are also accidentally caught in fishing gear but there is limited data on just how many.

Thankfully, the accidental capture of endangered species like sea turtles can be reduced and possibly avoided altogether. Some studies on bycatch reduction technologies (BRTs) have used sensory cues to alert these species of the presence of fishing gear. The Iluminar El Mar project is currently exploring the potential of coloured LED lights to reduce turtle bycatch in the artisan fisheries of Ecuador. 

Crucial first step to reducing bycatch

Gillnet fisheries in Ecuador are in desperate need for solutions to reduce bycatch of turtles, sharks and other protected species. The Iluminar El Mar project hopes to be a first crucial step to testing and eventually providing these solutions. 

To keep up to date and learn more about Ecuador’s gillnet fishery, follow the project on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram

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