It seems strange at first: fishermen in favor of a net that catches fewer fish? But more and more, those who make their living from the ocean are looking for new ways to sustain its bounty for the next generation. Now a novel partnership with The Nature Conservancy is helping a group of Maine fishermen do just
“We’ve been out on the water with fishermen testing different nets,” says Geoff Smith, director of the Conservancy’s marine program in Maine. “We want to see which nets release more of the smaller, juvenile fish and unintended species safely into the ocean while retaining enough legal-sized fish for fishermen to make a living.”
The right net for the right fish
Using a net with larger openings is not an easy sell to many fishermen, says Gary Libby, a Port Clyde fisherman taking part in the research. With each increase in size, fewer fish are caught overall, and some fishermen say they can’t afford to go any larger.
But Gary Libby doesn’t shy away from a challenge. In fact, he says the surest way to get him to try something is to tell him it can’t be done.
“I want a sustainable product—not quantity, but quality,” he says. “My hope is that if I bring in better fish, even if there’s less of it, I can still make a good return.” Initial results of the research suggest that achieving this magic balance might indeed be possible.
“The seven-inch, square-shaped net ended up letting out almost all of the bycatch,” Libby says. Impressed with the results, he even started using the net when fishing for grey sole on his own permit. “I’m happy with the results I’ve been seeing for sole,” says Libby. “I lose some legal-sized fish, but it’s more efficient. There’s less time sorting on deck, and I can get a higher price because the fish aren’t damaged."
Ensuring the fish of the future
While there is still much to learn about which nets work best for which species, Libby sees an inherent logic in letting as many juveniles free on the bottom as possible. “Take less, leave more in the ocean,” he says. “To me it is obvious that this will ensure more fish to spawn the following year.”
But what’s most essential, he says, is for fishermen to be able to experiment with these new approaches—an expensive undertaking that this project with the Conservancy is helping make possible.
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“I’d like to see different-sized meshes used for different areas and different species,” Libby adds. “The same old methods just aren’t working for fish or fishermen. I want to learn what might work better through practice. I believe it is the right thing to do.”