Can sensors and systems balance competing interests for our natural resources?

by Matt Ball on August 12, 2011

Last week, I spent a dream vacation in Alaska’s Inside Passage fishing for salmon and halibut. Recent changes to the fishing laws in Alaska provided a good deal of the dialogue with our fishing guides, who are always torn between client demands, regulations, and sustaining their living in balance with the commercial fishing industry. With a front-row seat to the beauty and bounty of the region, the pressures of managing man’s impacts was central to the experience.

Gone are the days when commercial interests entirely trumped the environment, where canneries filled every cove and there was a bounty placed on seal pelts and eagle claws because they were seen as competitors for the fish. In place of this open-season mentally are a series of regulations that work to maintain the balance on this natural resource for all, but it’s always a juggling act. I couldn’t help but think how a combination of sensors and systems might usher in greater transparency for better management of the fishery, while sustaining jobs and an incredible wilderness experience for visitors.

Competitive Instincts

Wherever opportunity is bountiful, it seems inevitable for greed to take hold and for some to want more than they can practically consume. New international halibut regulations this year put a much stricter limit on the number of guides that could fish for halibut, and reduced the size of keeper halibut to protect the breeding stock and reduce trophy fish competition. While one guide was understandably bitter about losing his business because he missed out on a permit, he also expressed appreciation for tightened regulations that meant he wouldn’t have to see clients continuing to fish obsessively even though they caught and killed more fish than they could reasonably take home. Regulations provide a needed check to return rationality when instinct tells us to keep taking more.

Politics are also an inescapable element when the interests of sport, guide, native, and commercial interests compete for the same fragile resource. To complicate things further, there’s also the tie of fishing to rural economic development in a sparsely populated state. The abundance of the fishing stock, coupled with high demand and high prices, means that many can make an excellent living with a short and intense effort. The appeal of this lifestyle puts an even greater pressures on the resource, necessitating closer monitoring and management to ensure a balance.

Monitoring Challenges

The sheer vastness and remoteness of the wilderness in Alaska poses great challenges for communication, let alone close monitoring of all the competing interests. Fish and game boats and planes were present and visible, but no size of force could credibly catch all the violators should a coordinated effort or lawless element pervade. In addition to the monitoring challenge on the catchers, there is a significant need to better monitor and understand the behaviors of the fish stocks to ensure the best stewardship.

The technological challenge is perhaps too great at present to deploy an ocean sensing network along the lines of NEPTUNE that integrates sensors and live data and video from the seafloor, although this approach certainly shows a path to future possibilities. The idea of close monitoring of large areas of the seafloor certainly would provide a better understanding of the health, interactions and biodiversity of the seafloor, but couldn’t easily scale to cover the full ground of fisheries.

Smarter Hooks, Nets and Traps

Needless killing is unfortunately a byproduct of the harvest for some species. While catch-and-release is certainly in play here to return fish too small or those out of season, some fish are fragile and indiscriminate catching causes casualties. Some species that we reeled in from great depths had fatal impacts from atmospheric changes that we know as “the bends,” which taught us to reel more slowly, but there is no way of knowing your catch until it reaches the surface.

The issue of indiscriminate catching led me to think about smarter hooks, nets and traps that might identify and release unwanted species or catches that didn’t conform to keeper status at depths rather than discovering the catch at the surface. This idea isn’t outside the realm of possibility, and would certainly make for more efficient fishing, but perhaps would tread too heavily on the libertarian northern mentality and many people’s idea of sport fishing.

There is one area of practical geospatial technology application that I think would take hold. We lost a full crab pot one night to an overnight thief, and this led to a story of cutthroat king crab wars where one of the crew lost all his pots (valued at more than $100K) to an uncaught thief. Making a trackable crab pot, maybe with sensors indicating the size of the catch, would certainly be of interest. Tying pot location and catch size along a network would aid the efficiency of the operation, and perhaps down the road you could add technology to exclude the females that must be put back.

The issues of fishery management in Alaska are very complex, as are any regulations that aims to balance the bounty of a wilderness with increasing populations and demands. Just as our urban centers are moving toward a more surveillant society to manage greater density and impacts in a more efficient and equitable manner, there’s an inevitable technical advancement to monitor our wilderness more closely. Sensors and systems can combine to ensure the interests of humans and nature are met while preserving livability and economic vitality.

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