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Setting up high-value sea cucumber chain in Europe through a new fishing gear with no environmental impact and advanced processing equipment

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TOPBALAT (Setting up high-value sea cucumber chain in Europe through a new fishing gear with no environmental impact and advanced processing equipment)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2018-08-31

The seafood fishery and processing industry has a long-standing tradition and is of key importance to coastal communities. Currently, the highest risk to the seafood industry is the availability of supply due to the decline in stock of traditional species. Hence, the need for diversification. Sea Cucumbers (SC) are echinoderms, in the same family as starfish. SC have a high international commercial value, and global demand is increasing in Asia; led by China. SC are a rather unknown yet highly available resource in Europe and constitute a very profitable product. SC are currently discarded in fishing operations that involve trawling and dredging. Instead of discarding them, fisheries will increase European sector’s incomes, particularly during fish-banned seasons of other species.

On the other hand, limited environmental impact of the fishing methods is core to assure the sustainability of supply (and thus, business) and is increasingly more valued by fishermen and consumers. The harvesting of SC is made either by hand or by using traditional seafood fishing dredges, (e.g. typical scallop dredges). These are ski- and beam-dredges usually constructed from a very heavy steel frame in the form of a scoop, with teeth along the bottom bar of the frame, that jump over obstacles by scraping and pushing, and that create irreversible damage on seabed’s animal and plant communities. The global challenges posed by current dredge / trawling fishing methods impact directly on fishing stocks sustainability. Bottom trawling produces comparable effects on the deep sea-floor to those generated by agricultural ploughing on land, and some countries have introduced fishing restrictions.

The fishing sector is also claiming for efficient methods and for the reduction of expenditure, to reduce business risks and to guarantee long-term sustainability. Fishing and processing costs are associated with the time and effort required to fish an adequate catch and to produce a profitable product. Moreover, those countries outside the Euro suffer from an additional risk that requires the produce to be extra profitable so that it is possible to buffer currency fluctuations (in countries such as Iceland, Norway, Scotland).

TOPBALAT’s innovations consist of two technological components to harvest and process sea cucumbers:

• A modified dredge adapted to SC. A new -tech fishing gear resulting from drastic modifications of the conventional gear currently used and the attachment of a high-end sensor system to provide the skipper with information on the gear’s position and fishing performance. The new dredge is expected to improve maneuverability, reduce damage to the dredge and the sea floor, and increase catch efficiency.
• An innovative processing machinery which automate tasks, and deliver processing accuracy and efficiency, with the aim of getting a commercial high-value product at low cost. This processing also impacts positively on the distribution of the product, as shipping further processed and dried sea cucumber is much more efficient cost-wise than frozen raw material.
The main objective of the First Period was to implement, test and validate the fishing gear. This includes all components, such as the sensor system, the structure, the improved bag and the rubber wheels. It furthermore was meant to cover the adaptation to various sea bottoms. The goal was to design a new Sea Cucumber (SC) dredge that would be equipped with different modifications and add-ons that would allow to catch Sea Cucumber (SC) on sandy bottoms as well as sea beds with high anfractuosity or that are steep rocky. The designed high-end sensor system was meant to provide information on the gear´s position and fishing performance, as the goal was to reduce damage to either the dredge and the sea floor.

The main objective with this design was furthermore built to increase fish efficiency. Following the designing of new sea cucumber dredge, the next objective was to test the fishing efficiency of the dredge as well as its sustainability and impact on the sea bottom. The main goal was to assess if the new modifications of the conventional SC dredge would reach the goal of improving catching efficiency, decreasing by-catches and limiting harm to seafloor. It was also set out to conduct a testing where the assessment was drawn from a comparison test between the traditional ski dredge and the new design.

The development of the fishing gear did proceed very well. We finished the designs and tests and the results were very positive. Berg´s dredge has been in use now for almost a year with great results. Comparison of average catch between years has showed that the new dredge has improved fishing efficiency drastically. Testing has shown that the reason behind this improved efficiency of the dredge is mainly twofold: firstly, the fishing gear has improved (it has better position, so it catches more) and secondly the crew has more time for fishing, as lesser time is wasted on failed drags (flips) and maintenance.
TOPBALAT’s novel fishing gear is towed along the sea bottom by a fishing vessel to collect bottom-dwelling SC in a less disturbing way. The new SC dredge is based on the structure of a typical dredge albeit equipped with a series of modifications and add-ons that will allow to catch SC on sandy bottoms and even on those with high anfractuosity —submarine cliffs, steep rocky sea beds, etc.

Our novel SC dredge boasts rubber wheels, as opposed to the heavy metal bar of traditional seafood fishing gear, which decreases the sea bottom area that is scraped since only the rubber wheels are touching the ground letting the moving arms and light chains pick SC from the seafloor. The rubber wheels prevent the SC dredge from getting stuck in soft-sediment sea bottoms. Its weight is significantly lower than conventional dredges in order to improve the manoeuvrability from the boat in high anfractuosity sea beds. The net ends in a light bag (cod-end) with a rubber belly where the catch is collected and a one-way valve so that the SC is not forced out of the bag during the tow operations. Only adult-sized SC and other conspicuous animals are caught (e.g. sea urchins, starfishes), but these by-catches occur in a very low rate (<5% by-catches).

The dredge will be equipped with high-end sensors that will allow for the improvement on the dredge’s manoeuvrability and thus their harvesting performance. This sensor system will provide the skipper with a range of information on the gear’s position and fishing performance, previously unavailable:
• Provides indications of sea bottom relief and depth in a real-time echogram and relays pitch and roll/level info, which tells the skipper if the dredge is lying at the optimal harvesting angle.
• Indicates if the two parallel dredges are at a safe distance between each other. Typically, in seafood fishing each vessel tows two dredges simultaneously to maximise the operational costs.
• Measures how heavy the net is becoming to be able to pull the net when the catch is optimal.

Once the catch is harvested and taken to port, our proposition is to automate the processing line to obtain greater benefit margins both from cutting costs and from upgrading the final product value. i.e. dehydrated and eviscerated whole sea cucumbers have a much higher market price than cut and frozen SC, with a sharp decrease of weight of the final product.
Processing the catches
Close-up of the dredge ready to be towed.
The dredge in operation
User interface of the application at the console of the ship.