Devocean’s rope-free crab fishing system
There are an estimated 30,000 abandoned fishing objects in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This “ghost gear” from the fishing industry includes labyrinths of 80,000 vertical ropes used for crab fishing that line the ocean floor.
These objects are deadly traps for marine mammals, including the Right Whale, which is in critical danger of extinction. Faced with this reality, measures to protect marine fauna are being tightened and, almost every day, a new closure is announced by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
This is what motivated Devocean Co-Founder Simon Therrien and his team to create an eco-responsible alternative to traditional fishing equipment that is as sustainable as it is profitable for the fishermen who depend on it.
“It’s too often forgotten that the fishing industry is central to the economy of coastal villages,” says Simon, who was anxious to respond to the socio-economic issues in a sustainable manner. “If we eliminate it, the impacts will be enormous.”
By collaborating with key players in the field and placing fishermen at the heart of their product development, the startup has succeeded in creating a prototype that eliminates miles of rope connecting each cage.
The system: four innovative by-products.
Devocean developed a submersible buoy that rises to the surface on demand using an acoustic communication system. The buoy, attached directly to the crab cages, sinks to the bottom of the water and is brought up using a signal by the time a fisherman returns for it.
“The communications systems on the market were either too expensive or completely unsuitable for the industry. So we created our own sound system that emits a unique acoustic signal at each buoy, triggered by the owner,” Simon explains.
To avoid wasting time and ensure the safety of those on the boat, the team designed a deck unit that rewinds the rope inside the buoy, while the fisherman brings the cage back on board the boat.
“We also developed an app that records the GPS coordinates of the buoys.”
The startup is working with fishermen’s groups and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to find the best solution for anonymously and securely sharing the GPS locations of buoys around boats in the same area.
The system, initially developed as part of a project during Simon’s final year of study at the University of Sherbrooke, is now in its fifth iteration in less than two years.
“It was important for us to test our minimum viable product as soon as possible in the field,” he says. Devocean has participated in Sherbrooke’s Espaces Inc. incubation programs, the Ocean Startup Project and they are part of Novarium’s customized FLOTS PRO accelerator program. They also received grants from the Ministère de l’Économie et de l’Innovation, the Canadian Nature Fund for Aquatic Species at Risk and the Whale Protection Equipment Adoption Fund.
At present, six specialists in mechanical engineering, robotics and computer science work full time at Devocean’s Grande-Rivière office in the Merinov research center in Gaspésie, where they benefit from access to equipment to go to sea. In Sherbrooke, they also welcome interns specialized in technological development.
The first tests with local fishermen, including Daniel Desbois, president of the Association des crabiers de la Gaspésie and René Cyr, allowed them to fine-tune their products.
“We left them in their hands, without saying anything, and they were able, naturally, to make them work. We worked hard to make it simple and intuitive. The results are positive,” says Simon.
Even if some fears persist, Simon understands the feedback he’s received is constructive. “It’s normal, it’s not easy to change the established and optimized ways doing things for years to make room for electronics.”
To give anglers confidence and avoid adding to the problem of ghost gear, Simon and his team developed a second, third and even fourth method that allows the buoy to be retrieved every time, in case of a problem.
“For us, it was important to offer a product that best fits current methods, avoids extra handling and does not add to the problem of ghost gear,” says Simon.
Currently, the Devocean team is undertaking two pilot projects with the Mi’kmaq Maliseet Aboriginal Fisheries Management Association (MMAFMA) and the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) in Nova Scotia. Supporting the modernization of their fishing techniques, MMAFMA will test Devocean’s products, notably on their training boats, starting in June. After trying American acoustic communication systems, the CWF is now trying the Devocean solution.
“They heard about us in an article and contacted us to collaborate,” says Simon. “In the Gaspé, lobsters are fished close to shore, while in Nova Scotia and the East Coast of the US, lobsters are fished farther offshore, which increases the risk of marine encroachment.”
Devocean’s system, therefore, could also serve the lobster fishing industry.
By improving cohabitation between economically vital human activities and endangered species, Simon feels confident that their system will become a sustainable solution in the near future. Soon, the company will begin its commercialization phase.
“By 2023, we should be able to launch and circulate about 100 products, with a dozen fishermen for the trial run. By 2024, we’ll be ready to meet market demand.”
Simon also says he plans to establish a production facility in partnership with local businesses. The future is bright for Devocean, to the benefit of marine life and the fishing industry, on which our livelihoods still depend to this day.
About the author
Catherine Bernier is a creative director, freelance writer, and photographer who also holds a degree in counselling psychology. Whether in Sainte-Flavie, Gaspésie (her hometown in Québec), or Nova Scotia (her adopted province), she cultivates a special relationship with the ocean and wild spaces.