Gala Moreno, Ph.D.
Senior Research Associate
BioFAD Research Projects
Scientists, like almost everyone else, were forced to accept a new normal in 2020. We found ourselves sharing workspaces with our remote-learning children. Traveling much less often, as movement restrictions rendered certain projects downright unfeasible. And collaborating with colleagues virtually, rather than face-to-face—which meant missing some critically productive (and usually enjoyable) aspects of our work. But sustainability couldn’t wait for the old normal to return. We had to keep progressing, one way or another.
So we pressed on, altering our tactics to fit conditions beyond our control. My team’s mission was to discover best practices for an urgent change in fishing gear: the biodegradable fish aggregating device, or bio-FAD. (FADs are floating objects designed to encourage fish to congregate nearby. They’re effective tools for commercial tuna fishing, but, traditionally, they are made of plastics and netting, and can have negative ecosystem impacts.) ISSF’s scientists and research partners had planned bio-FAD-focused cruises spanning 2020 and 2021. The goal was to identify organic and biodegradable materials for FADs that would last at sea as long as fishers needed them to – but no longer. Let me highlight some of the results we achieved 2020, despite the quarantine.
Keep in mind that developing innovative FAD designs is only half the battle. New concepts have to be tested in fishing situations. And deploying them for scientific trials, around the globe, is never a simple feat.
In 2020, in the Micronesian state of Pohnpei, our project scientists coordinated with the Caroline Fisheries Corporation fleet to deploy 100 bio-FADs in the Western Pacific. By August, we had data crucial to evaluating the performance of bio-FADs versus traditional FADs across an extensive region in the Western Pacific Ocean.
Also last year, bio-FAD deployment in Ghana rose from 10 to 108 devices, in a project funded by the Common Oceans ABNJ Tuna project and ISSF.
Overall, fleets in three tropical oceans are now testing new bio-FAD designs as part of an ISSF-led push to move away from FADs that are made from plastic material. Data from these pilot projects will help scientists compare bio- and traditional FAD performance in all oceans.
Innovation and Outreach
Some of our most exciting work in 2020 centered on “jelly-FADs”—bio-FADs that we designed in collaboration with a team of physical oceanographers. Jelly-FADs are made of organic materials and are smaller than traditional models, yet they drift slowly, like jellyfish, so ocean currents are less likely to carry them too far afield. Both of those qualities will reduce their environmental impact, if they are lost or abandoned.
In December, I collaborated online with the Institute de Cienciès del Mar in Barcelona to develop this innovative bioFAD design and test it in Mediterranean waters, away from fishing fleets, to allow us to monitor the devices undisturbed. So far, our trials look promising in terms of durability, tuna-aggregating effectiveness, and location control. If the results continue to be positive, next step for the Jelly-FAD will be fleet trials at sea.
Even innovations like jelly-FADs alone won’t get us where we need to be—universal adoption of non-entangling and bio- or organic FADs—without advocacy and outreach. Ultimately, success depends on our ability to educate and persuade both regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) and individual fishers. We must convince RFMOs that conservation measures requiring bio-FADs are essential, starting now. And we must get through to the individual fishers that still cling to their decades-old designs.
In 2020, friendly in-person exchanges yielded to virtual meetings. But even from afar, we listened, learned and made our case in every available medium, just as we will in 2021—until and after the pandemic passes. Because the stakes are too high to let this virus shut sustainability science down.
Grand Prize Winner in ISSF’s Seafood Sustainability Contest
Mobula Ray Bycatch Mitigation Initiative
Mobula rays (manta and devil rays) are some of the ocean’s slowest-growing and most vulnerable species, and are facing global pressure from multiple threats, including bycatch in fisheries. However, there is hope for these charismatic giants: preliminary evidence suggests that the methods of capturing and handling Mobula rays in tuna fisheries varies widely, and that minor changes in operational practices could lead to major improvements for their survival. And by working together, conservation scientists, fisheries managers, and tuna fishers can make huge strides for these threatened species.
We’re taking a multi-pronged approach to developing Mobula bycatch solutions in Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO) purse seine fisheries with skipper workshops, fisher surveys, onboard educational materials, and pilot bycatch mitigation technology development. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic waylaid some of our planned research activities. We had intended to conduct workshops in Manta, Ecuador, in January 2021, but instead pivoted to an online format. On the upside, we were able to reach more than 70 tuna vessel owners, skippers, crew, and other stakeholders with the help of collaborator TUNACONS, a group of tuna fishing firms based in Ecuador. The meeting was an opportunity to communicate our research goals, methods, and preliminary findings with tuna fisheries stakeholders and fishers.
Survey of Stakeholders
We have so far collected more than 25 surveys with tuna captains, crew members, chief engineers, observers, and vessel owners. The goal of these surveys is to understand perceptions of Mobula ray bycatch, identify potential feasible solutions to mitigate bycatch, and to involve fishers and observers in the production of bycatch mitigation solutions. As a small incentive to complete the survey, we have worked with an artist to design and distribute t-shirts displaying the five Mobula species found in the ETPO. These surveys have already provided valuable information about the feasibility of bycatch mitigation strategies for Mobulas. For instance, preliminary results suggest that fishers and captains have ideas for minor operational changes to reduce mobula ray bycatch mortality, including keeping a modified grid or “manta stretcher” on board to quickly release animals, installing a set of small doors in the vessel side to help with heavy individuals, and employing divers to release the rays from the net.
Currently, our team is gathering these ideas, and the next step will be to put them into action with a pilot project aboard a small number of working fishing vessels. It remains unclear, however, exactly which of these methods will result in the best result—in other words, which alteration will allow tuna vessels to avoid Mobula rays or reduce the likelihood that they are fatally injured or killed when they are caught in the net. With this pilot project, we will test the efficacy of these ideas using satellite tags to gauge whether they result in lower chances of mortality after the animal is released.
Mobula Bycatch Mitigation Poster
Additionally, we designed and began distribution for a poster to aid with onboard identification of Mobula ray species (which can be very similar in appearance and difficult to tell apart), as well as to help clarify and emphasize proper handling techniques. The poster, designed by Julie Johnson at Life Science Studios, includes identification details, a map of tuna purse seine bycatch of Mobula rays in the ETPO, a comparison of Mobulas’ life history characteristics to that of tuna and dolphins, and an explanation of the ongoing research to address and reduce this bycatch. We think of it as a one-stop shop for tuna vessels and Mobula rays and are distributing it to tuna purse seine captains for them to hang in the cabin onboard tuna vessels.
With the combination of these approaches, we hope to deliver a bycatch solution that is both feasible and effective for stakeholders in the tuna fishery, but also impactful for reducing bycatch mortality for these iconic and highly vulnerable species.
This work is part of a collaboration between the University of California, Santa Cruz, ISSF, The Manta Trust, Mobula Conservation Project, the Inter-American Tuna Commission, TUNACONS, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and tuna skippers, crew, and observers, and has additionally been aided by technical expertise from AZTI-Tecnalia. We are incredibly grateful for the support of these collaborators and stakeholders
If you have questions about this work or would like to participate in this study, please contact Melissa Cronin at email@example.com.
Doctoral student Melissa Cronin of the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the Grand Prize Winner in ISSF’s Seafood Sustainability Contest. She won for her contest entry, “Incentivizing Collaborative Release to Reduce Elasmobranch Bycatch Mortality,” which proposed handling-and-release methods that purse-seine vessel skippers and crew can use to reduce the mortality of manta rays and devil rays incidentally caught during tuna fishing. Ms. Cronin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Conservation Action Lab at UC Santa Cruz studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.