Reducing Fishing Footprints through Gear Modification

27th March 2015 in MPAs, Sustainability / Environment

A workshop on efforts to reduce the seabed contact from trawl gears demonstrates the huge potential for gear impact mitigation as a way to maintain productive fisheries, whilst contributing to marine habitat conservation objectives.

Reducing Fishing Footprints through Gear Modification

Extending protection measures for marine habitats is currently the major thrust of marine environmental policy. The view that bottom trawling is destroying vast swathes of marine habitat on an annual basis, likened to the destruction of the tropical rainforests, has long been pushed by ENGO’s to instil a sense of moral panic in order to bolster campaigns for marine protected areas (MPAs). Whilst the deforestation analogy is fundamentally flawed - fishermen will generally return to the same fishing grounds from year to year - the industry has struggled to comprehensively refute such claims as it has been unable to account for its true footprint.

Gear Modifications as an Alternative to MPAs

The extent to which the seabed is actually fished is still a subject of research and debate, but whilst the conventional response has focussed on area closures such as MPAs, little attention has been paid to gear technology. A gear modifications workshop held after the Boston Seafood Expo on 19th March, brought together scientists, industry, NGO's and policy specialists, to challenge the one-dimensional approach to the issue, by asking what practical steps can be taken to reduce or mitigate seabed pressures generated by trawl gears. A series of presentations of work undertaken in this field demonstrated the huge potential for reducing the seabed contact of various trawl gear components such as trawl doors, bridles/sweeps and foot ropes, and hence considerably reducing the overall fishing footprint of those fisheries.

The conclusion drawn from this way of thinking about marine habitat conservation is not therefore that more areas of the seabed need to be protected through spatial closures such as MPAs. Instead, by recognising and facilitating efforts to reduce gear seabed contact, both conservation objectives can be met, whilst fisheries continue to be permitted, resulting in a win-win outcome. As a result, such an approach has been successfully used as an alternative to area closures for Alaskan fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. In contrast, in Europe, it has yet to get a hearing in any policy debate.

Practical Considerations

Whilst hugely promising, the approach is not without practical challenges. Many experimental gear trials in the past have failed as they have not worked effectively with the users of the gears, the skippers, or there has not been the will to work through the process of adapting experimental designs in order to get them to work. There is little point in adopting new gear designs if they are going to significantly impede catching potential; greater fishing effort is then needed to catch the same level of catch, undermining the benefits of the modification. Therefore, joint working between gear technologists, gear manufacturers and industry, and understanding the drivers and motivations behind the adoption of gear changes or practices is key. Regulators will also need to recognise gear impact mitigation as an acceptable management response.


The Boston event was an early foray into the possibilities that might offer an appropriate route for our own fisheries. For conservationists, such an approach might not provide the level of emotive satisfaction associated with designating ever greater numbers of MPAs. But it is quite possible that gear modifications offer a route to marine habitat conservation that will deliver far more in reality than any MPA will ever achieve. It's time to think about it.