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Fish Aggregating Devices: A Powerful Conservation Tool if Used in the Right Way

There is a simple formula to establish a sustainable fishery. We must identify the problem areas – overfishing, habitat damage, bycatch – and employ proper management procedures that address these concerns. It’s clear, direct, and effective, yet extremely complex. It requires communication and cooperation between fishermen, scientists, and regulating agencies. Time and money need to be invested to discover alternative fishing methods, implement regulation procedures, and perform stock assessments.

This is why, even when issues are discovered, it takes quite some time to do something about it, and why there are still many unsustainable fisheries out there that are harming our oceans and depleting our seafood supply. Often these efforts must take place over international boundaries, which cause us to enter an entirely new arena of troubles. But surprisingly, the issues may also provide insight in possible solutions to protecting species.

Often the problem that lends to unsustainability is the fishing method. We already know that longlines are a serious issue when it comes to bycatch and threaten endangered species. Bottom trawling tends to destroy benthic habitats, depleting species even more on top of fishing pressures. The most recent unsustainable fishing method that has been uncovered is the use of Fish Aggregating Devices, or FADs.

The trouble with FADs

A FAD is simply a floating device under which fish “aggregate” or gather in large numbers. It can be anything from a seaweed mat or floating log, to a man-made device meant to catch fish. This might seem like an odd behavior at first, a bunch of fish gathering under a floating platform. But it actually makes perfect sense – the natural instincts of a fish drive it to look for shelter, a protected area where they can hide from predators and lay their eggs in relative safety. Rather than swimming around in the open ocean, they can have a “roof” over their heads, so to speak. Eventually, other organisms like barnacles, tunicates, and mussels will begin to grow on the FAD, creating a marine community.

Fishermen have long known about the aggregating behavior of fish and there are probably tens of thousands of FADs deployed in oceans across the globe. Fishermen let the fish gather, then deploy nets to pull in their catch. It’s an effective, easy way to fish. They are used heavily in the tuna fisheries, as tuna are highly mobile and the FADs temporarily halt their epic migrations, making them just a bit easier to catch.

Unfortunately, science is uncovering a nasty fact: FADs might be the newest fishing method to earn an unsustainable rating. There is very little information on exactly how many FADs are hovering in our oceans, but we know that they are utterly unregulated and unmonitored. FADs have evolved over the years into sophisticated structures, equipped with radio transmitters and sonar devices that inform fishing vessels of their location and the amount of aggregated fish. This type of FAD has tremendous capability in impacting fish populations.

FADs also attract other species, such as sea turtles and fish that are not targeted by the fishery. When fishing vessels come to collect their catch, they deploy nets that scoop up everything hiding beneath the FAD without discrimination. This can result in a large amount of bycatch, threatening species that are already suffering from depletion.

Without proper monitoring, FADs can have a detrimental impact on marine ecosystems. Management is needed if these structures are going to be in our oceans. A FAD inspection and assessment process must be put into place to maintain and restore healthy fisheries.

The flipside of the FAD coin

However, there is an interesting upside to FADs. It provides a method to cause fish to gather in one area. One of the main issues with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – areas of the ocean where fishing is restricted – is that there is no environmentally friendly way to “fence” them off and keep the fish from swimming outside of them. Often we just try to preserve the habitat within and make it ideal for fish and invertebrates to make their home. A FAD gives us the opportunity to keep fish within a protected area. By deploying a FAD and restricting fishing, we can create a highly effect artificial MPA. Fish will be able to grow, mate, and reproduce under these FADs, eventually causing the population to spread out to find new habitats, and giving fishermen abundant numbers of large fish to catch. We can even monitor fish populations from afar using the same sonar technology utilized by fishermen.

The idea behind this has spurned a new, more pleasing name for such a device – Fish Enhancing Devices, or FEDs. FADs in their current form might very well be highly unsustainable. But there is immense potential to use them as FEDs to benefit fish and fisheries.

Identifying the problem areas is essential to ensuring sustainability – but so is recognizing the advantages of using certain methods to improve fisheries. A harmful fishing method used to catch fish today could become a genius solution to saving fish tomorrow. We hope you will support sustainable fisheries by purchasing your seafood products from businesses that carry a certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, such as Pucci Foods.

6 thoughts on “Fish Aggregating Devices: A Powerful Conservation Tool if Used in the Right Way

  1. There are definitely some huge pros and huge cons for these types of devices. The pros are obvious. The fact that fisherman can easily catch a large number of fish at once enables all related trades to flourish. The cons are also pretty big though. Not being able to regulate the quantities that are being caught could have a huge impact on whether or not we can sustain the numbers that are needed to keep populations thriving. There must be some kind of happy medium and hopefully they find it.

  2. What is being done about the large and unwanted animals that are caught in FADs (turtles, sharks, whales, etc)? It’s easy to see that these devices would catch much unwanted sea life. Is there anything in the works to stop this?

  3. It sounds like FADs have both positive and negative aspects. I can’t believe that they are not regulated though. The idea that these FADs are scattered across our waters without knowledge as to how many there are and where they are is quite scary. The fact that they can be used to keep fish in protected areas is great, but even that could be abused if not properly monitored. I hope that there will soon be regulations put into place. Otherwise, these fishermen could even be causing themselves more problems in the future.

  4. I live on the east coast of Florida and we have over the years made great steps and done great work to help the endangered sea turtles. it is a disgrace that there are no regulations in place on FADS and more research is needed as to their effects on sea creatures, how widespread their use is and where they are put.

  5. Overall FADs are a positive. They provide shelter to bait and juvenile fish which increases fish populations. They also congregate fish. FADs are not the problem but rather the indiscriminate fishing methods. If they hook and line commercially fished FADs rather than using nets, it would be a very sustainable fishery.

  6. Our oceans have been on the verge of ecological collapse for awhile. Indiscriminately trawling the bottoms is disastrous. FADs seem like they are being abused in much the same way: fishermen not caring about the bycatch, blindly putting out their nets and lines. Maybe, as this article mentions, we can use the FADs to our advantage, but I think nothing is really going to change until there is a major paradigm shift in the attitudes of humans. Commercial fishing, as with pretty much all other commercial enterprise, sustainability is bludgeoned to death by the pursuit of profit at all costs.

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