Faced with cheap foreign imports and rising fuel costs, commercial shrimpers working in the Gulf of Mexico are facing some hard times.
The waters from Alabama to Louisiana account for nearly half of all U.S. shrimp production, and a University of Mississippi marine scientist hopes to enable shrimpers to be more productive, as well as environmentally friendly, by reducing bycatch.
“When targeting a certain species, there’s always other species that get caught in the nets, which is bycatch,” said Glenn Parsons, UM professor of biology. “Not only do fishers have to spend more time sorting their catch, they also end up with dead and dying species.”
Bycatch from shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico is among the highest in the United States. “For every pound of shrimp, there are about 5 pounds of bycatch,” Parsons said.
Parsons interest in biological oceanography began when he watched the late ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s television programs as a child. Family vacations to the Gulf of Mexico further instilled his passion: “I’ve always loved the ocean,” he said. “I love fishing.”
Reinforcing his enthusiasm, Parsons has worked over the past five years to develop a device that releases nontargeted species, such as juvenile red snapper, from shrimping trawls. Fifteen designs later, his bycatch reduction device, which Parsons calls a nested cylinder, has proven successful in reducing the amount of red snapper bycatch.
“At a time when the shrimp industry is enduring tough economic challenges, cheap imported shrimp, high fuel costs and pressing environmental issues, it is gratifying to know that there are people like Dr. Parsons, with his extensive knowledge and experience, willing to spend the time improving both my industry and the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Steve Bosarge, owner of Bosarge Boats & Dockside Seafood in Pascagoula.
A third-generation commercial fisherman, Bosarge said Parsons’ bycatch reduction device shows real potential.
“The benefits of reducing overall bycatch are less time spent sorting the catch and more efficiently performing trawls,” he said. “That, in turn, reduces fuel consumption and that equates to an economic benefit to shrimp fishermen.”
Parsons innovative device takes advantage of natural fish instincts. Made of two sleeves a smaller cylinder nested inside a larger outer cylinder the device is attached inside a trawl. The openings of the cylinder generate a continuous escape route around the circumference of the net, allowing nontargeted fish species to escape.
According to field results, the device is a success, with 40 percent to 60 percent reductions in bycatch. “This is good news for fishermen and conservationists,” Parsons said.
Parsons work has been recognized by the World Wildlife Fund. More than 70 fishing-related designs from around the world were submitted in the WWF’s 2007 International Smart Gear Competition, and Parsons was named a runner-up. The accolade included a $10,000 award.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “I never win anything, and it’s gratifying when people recognize your work.”
Parsons also has examined the effects of illumination and water flow on red snapper behavior, using a different bycatch device under a $100,000 grant awarded to UM by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Pascagoula.
Shrimp trawling is done at night, and illuminating the trawl with light sticks seems to help fish find their way out of the trawl, Parsons said. “I expect that light sticks placed in any bycatch reduction device will improve the performance of that device, at least in regards to red snapper bycatch reduction.”
Flow interruption plates on the nested cylinder device that Parsons designed also appear to help reduce bycatch, Parsons said. The plates help create dead water, which the fish gravitate toward, leading them out of the trawls. “The snapper don’t have to fight a strong current to escape,” he explained.
Project collaborator Dan Foster, a research fisheries biologist with NOAA Fisheries, described Parsons as an “expert” in the study of fish swimming ability.
“This is very important research,” Foster said. “The nested cylinder appears to be a viable method for bycatch control.”
Since 1998, NOAA Fisheries regulations have required Gulf of Mexico shrimpers to reduce juvenile red snapper bycatch by 44 percent. Despite the intentions, Foster said the available devices certified by NOAA Fisheries have yet to meet standards.
“Proposed changes to the certification criteria would require bycatch reduction devices to reduce finfish bycatch by 30 percent starting in 2008,” Foster said. “This new proposal could allow for new bycatch devices to be approved by NOAA, including Dr. Parsons’ nested cylinder design.”
With assistance from the WWF, Parsons is refining his design, which he believes is the most important work of his career. With a patent pending, he hopes to continue testing the device with Gulf Coast shrimpers this summer under the National Marine Fisheries Service’s free certification program.
“I hope that I will soon have the device ready for the certification process,” Parsons said.
He already has gotten calls from fishermen as far away as Alaska who want to purchase the device.
“The last thing I want to do is burden a poor, hardworking fisherman with something else that makes them lose money,” Parsons said. “I want this device to help, not hurt them, and I’m optimistic that it will have a significant and positive impact on both them and the environment.”