Puget Buoy is a startup developing innovations in green technology designed to reduce lost fishing gear and prevent whale entanglements for improved sustainability of maritime economies.

Problem:

On the Pacific Coast of North America a dual environmental and economic crisis has emerged. Whales critical to preserving ocean biodiversity are entangling with fishing gear at alarming rates. Since the early 2010s entanglements skyrocketed from 5-10 per year up to a record 61 whales in 2015. Entanglements, which are often fatal, have hit federally protected Humpback Whale populations particularly hard.

Puget Sound

Changing oceanic conditions due to climate change have forced migrating whales in search of food closer to shore in recent years. This shoreward distribution shift has brought whales into closer proximity to West Coast fishing operations. Of identifiable fishing gear causing entanglements, the majority is associated with the West Coast’s most valuable fishery: Dungeness Crab. Crabbing requires a trap, buoy, and a vertical line that sits in the water column for a few days at a time. As a result, state and federal governments have repeatedly stepped in to shorten the $102 to $236 million crabbing seasons as a quick, but blunt, solution to protect migrating whales. For the crabbing industry this has led to millions in lost earnings and significant uncertainty for the future.

Retrieving Crab PotsCrabbers also face a parallel challenge threatening both their livelihoods and the marine environment upon which they depend: lost and derelict fishing gear. An estimated 10% of the 500,000 crab pots deployed on the West Coast each year are lost at sea. Contributing factors include severe weather, boat strikes, sabotage/theft, and whale entanglements (as discussed above). Upfront costs to replace lost gear amount to $250 on average, resulting in an estimated $12.5 million in additional costs for crabbers each year.  Meanwhile, the lost gear accumulates on the seafloor, trapping and killing crabs before they can reproduce or be harvested. The result is reduced crab stocks, tens of millions of dollars in harvest losses for crabbers, and an expensive series of initiatives to locate and retrieve lost gear.

Luckily, a potential solution to both whale entanglements and lost crabbing gear already exists. Alternative ‘pop-up’ crabbing gear sits at the bottom of the sea floor, releasing lines to the surface only when crabbers are ready to bring in their catch a few days later. As a result, whales can swim through crabbing waters at greatly reduced risk of entanglement. Likewise, fishing gear losses are minimized since weather, boat strikes, and theft are also dramatically reduced as contributing factors. Finally, the solution has been well received by governments at the state and national level like California, which has allowed crabbers with pop-up gear to continue fishing through season closures associated with whale migrations.

Unfortunately for crabbers, alternative crabbing gear alternatives are not yet viable. Most pop-up solutions were developed for research purposes rather than commercial applications, costing 400% to 6,000% above conventional gear. Meanwhile, many of these alternatives also require significant changes to how crab pots are deployed and hauled in, requiring significant and expensive modifications, reduced fishing capacity, and additional labor. Finally, to date there have been no large-scale tests proving the efficacy of alternative gear. These tests are a critical component in convincing crabbers to invest their livelihoods in new gear solutions. The inability to scale and competitively offer alternative crabbing gear means pop-up solutions are currently an academic affair with little impact for the problems they are meant to address.

The crabbing industry is at a crossroads. Climate change means migrating whales will continue swimming through crabbing waters. Meanwhile, crabbers continue to face economic hardships and uncertainty while waiting for a viable gear alternative to prove its ability to address whale entanglements and come in at a cost crabbers can afford.

Solution:

The Puget Buoy System provides crabbers with an affordable alternative that both reduces whale entanglements and prevents gear loss. Our timed-release crab pot system keeps crabbing lines out of the water column which means whales can migrate through crabbing waters at a dramatically reduced risk of entanglement (40-88% estimated decrease). Meanwhile, we have successfully tested and proved our prototype concept through testing conducted in August, 2020. A viable pop-up alternative enables governments to eliminate or reduce crabbing season restrictions, providing crabbers with additional opportunities to harvest, earn income, and generate economic opportunity for their communities.

Aside from addressing whale entanglements our solution promises to help crabbers by reducing lost gear by 85%. Most of the estimated 10% of crabbing gear lost each year occurs due to factors that would either be reduced or eliminated by a pop-up alternative (ex: boat strikes, entanglement, wrong line-length, weather, etc.). For Dungeness crabbers reducing gear replacement costs would amount to millions in savings each year. The Puget Buoy System would also lead to healthier fisheries since the reduction in lost gear would prevent the loss of Dungeness crabs due to derelict/abandoned crabbing gear. The associated economic value of this potential revenue is estimated at $26.3 million each year, which amounts to a 12.8% increase above 2019’s catch value. A healthier fishery would lead to increased catches for crabbers and environmental benefits for all stakeholders.

Any entanglement solution in the crabbing industry must be economically viable for crabbers and the industry. The Puget Buoy System was developed with both cost and ease-of-use in mind. We worked with a diverse range of seafood industry stakeholders to ensure implementation requires as little modification to current gear and practices as possible. Meanwhile, the simplicity of the design brings costs down to a level competitive with conventional gear when savings associated with reduced gear loss are accounted for. Our system stands out versus competitors for its ability to thrive in the marketplace without reliance on either subsidies or optimistic projections for harnessing economies of scale.

Finally, we are excited for the potential long-term implications of our solution. We believe the Puget Buoy System could support industries facing similar issues with whale entanglements in other geographies, for example lobstering in New England and Canada which threatens critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. There are also significant financial benefits associated with preventing gear loss. Globally, the estimated benefit of removing less than 10% of derelict pots is $831 million. Applying our solution in additional industries would require research and adaptations to ensure the product matches the needs of users in each geography but we have already proven the potential through our work in the Dungeness crab fishery.