A few years ago lobster fishers in Bermuda put holes in their traps to let unwanted fish escape. No one tested them to prove that these escape gaps worked. When Ayana Elizabeth Johnson was selecting her dissertation topic, her advisor suggested she go to Curaçao because the fisheries department there wanted to adopt the Bermuda traps. Johnson thought that if the escape gaps had negative effects on the fishers’ total catch and did not help fish populations rebound, innovations for sustainable fishing could quickly lose support.
“Speaking with the fishermen in Curaçao helped me decide where to place the escape gaps,” says Johnson. “I was told that fish inside traps swim in circles. If you place the gaps in the corners, fish are more likely to see them when they are turning.” Johnson tested escape gaps of varying sizes and monitored their efficacy with hundreds of scuba dives. Her results showed an 80 percent reduction in bycatch. This encouraged Johnson not because trap fishing is the main method of fishing in Curaçao, but because it is widely used on reefs all around the world. “That kind of reduction could result in hundreds of thousands of unmarketable fish left alive per fisher per year,” says Johnson.
Tim McClanahan, a senior conservation zoologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, heard Johnson give a presentation on her research and wanted to see if the escape-gap traps would work on reefs in Kenya. In Kenya they often use woven traps that can easily be given escape gaps by essentially dropping a stitch like in knitting. McClanahan showed that the value of catches can actually increase with the gaps. When there are too many fish in the traps the fish can become damaged and reduce their value. Retrofitting traps costs less than a dollar per trap.
“Ocean conservation seems like a daunting problem,” says Johnson. “But the solutions can be simple.” Johnson received about a dozen emails from colleagues encouraging her to apply to Solution Search – an online platform designed to find successful innovation in conservation. “Everyone thought it was a good fit,” says Johnson. “Apparently, they were right.”
Johnson and McClanahan jointly applied and won the $20,000 grand prize. “This award will increase the visibility that simple technologies like these fish traps can be implemented in fisheries around the world,” says McClanahan.