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Big prize for ideas to help marine mammals, fishing fleets

Inefficient gear has serious ecological, economic costs

By Marsha Walton

Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles are caught annually in nets and on longlines.

Partners and judges in the International Smart Gear Competition

• American Fisheries Society
• Center for Sustainable Aquatic Resources
• Fisheries Conservation Foundation
• Marine Wildlife Bycatch Consortium
• National Fisheries Institute
• World Wildlife Fund
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries
Cool Science
Fishing Industry
Environmental Issues

(CNN) -- From sea turtles to whales to dolphins and birds, hundreds of thousands of animals die each year because they become entangled in fishing gear.

Now in an unusual partnership of scientists, the fishing industry and conservation groups, a contest with a hefty $25,000 prize is aimed at reducing those accidental deaths, known as "bycatch."

The World Wildlife Fund is taking the lead in the International Smart Gear Competition, which was announced Monday on the opening day of the Fourth World Fisheries Congress in Vancouver.

"Smart Gear" will begin accepting entries in June, with a deadline of December 31, 2004. Winners in three categories will also get technical help in bringing their ideas from the drawing board to manufacture.

"We hope this competition is able to harness the creativity and ingenuity of fishermen, students, and the public to reduce the waste caused by inefficient gear," said Tom Grasso of the World Wildlife Fund's marine conservation program.

WWF cast a wide net in getting partners and judges for the contest, including the leading trade association for the fish and seafood industry, the National Fisheries Institute.

"It's really an ideal situation when you have the industry, government, and environmental groups coming together with a common goal," said Linda Candler, a spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute.

The U.S. Oceans Commission says entanglement in fishing gear is the leading threat to marine mammals worldwide. And billions of pounds of "non-target" fish also are wasted each year; those fish also are considered bycatch.

For fishing fleets, dealing with bycatch takes time and raises costs. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates fishing fleets lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year because of the loss of juvenile and non-target fish.

A handful of devices that already exist to protect unintended capture are very effective, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Turtle excluder devices, known as TEDs, allow turtles to swim out of shrimp nets, while the shrimp stay in.

TEDs reduce shrimping-related sea turtle deaths by more than 90 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. And using circle hooks, instead of conventional "J" hooks by longline fleets, can also reduce turtle mortality.

Simply setting nets in deeper water can in some cases reduce bycatch.

Alarms known as pingers that are attached to fishing nets can annoy whales, dolphins and porpoises enough that they swim away to safety.

Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, estimate that 308,000 of those species die each year because they are trapped in nets.

Rules for the competition can be found at

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