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Blue Your Mind

Innovations feeding the fishing industry and catalyzing the blue economy

For small island economies looking for role models in the wake of hurricanes and COVID-19, one is clearly emerging: Puerto Rico and its innovation ecosystem.

The 2021 New Framework for Economic Revitalization adopted by Puerto Rico is taking a transformational approach to fostering innovation for the blue economy. The environmental non-profit sector is set-up to play a pivotal role as a hub of activity — launching new initiatives with research and educational networks and inviting interest from start-ups, and public and private agencies for funding and partnerships to scale-up.

Building a blue economy that is resilient is, in fact, one of the eight future-facing strategic economic recovery strategies defined by the “Puerto Rico Economic Disaster Recovery Plan” — supported by Economic Development Administration (EDA), a result of the disasters that affected the islands in 2017.

“It is about transforming the Puerto Rico economy while helping it recover from the past,” said David Dodd, President and CEO of the International Sustainable Resilience Center. “We need to make it resilient to withstand the next disaster, the thinking is grounded in more permanent activity, catalyzing entrepreneurship, capacity-building of local agencies, and leveraging the natural resources.”

Fish habitat enhancement program

One of the first initiatives is directed toward the fisheries sector, both commercial and recreational, through the design of responsibly anchored and managed FADs1 (see picture below). Bluetide Puerto Rico, a non-profit with the mission to promote eco-responsible innovation in blue economic development & coastal economic resilience, received the initial funding and capacity building support from EDA for developing the Fish Habitat Enhancement Program.

Fish species are known to naturally congregate near natural reefs or man-made devices such as FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices). FADs require an installation to the seabed creating a refuge for fish closer to the shore. Once installed it takes an average of about 3 months for the area to become populated by pelagic fish.

Captain Benny, Operations Manager at Bluetide and a marine biologist from University of Puerto Rico, walked us through the key aspects of the initiative. He took his interview from the 78-foot Research Vessel, a ship that is used to deploy FADs. He supports the view that more FADs are needed to reinvigorate the ocean economy and further support the data collection and research projects that will inform design of a sustainable fishing industry.

“In some sense,” explains Benny, “the concept of FADs has been around for years”. FADs began in the early 80s but were mostly private and floating devices whose position was difficult to track. Some of the early FAD versions were lost at sea during rough weather, in other cases the netting materials caught protected fish. The recovery rate of lost FADs was less than 10%.

Fish aggregating device

Fish aggregating device (FAD)

The next wave were experimental FADs managed by the Government of Puerto Rico through open-access FAD programs and were successful to track the use, and collect data from, different fishing-related activities. A new effort has begun post-hurricane. The current FAD projects in Puerto Rico are modeled after the positive impact experience of FADs in Hawaii and benefit from the technological advances in data collection that allow agencies to document FADs use, performance, and effectiveness in innovative ways.

Benefits to fishing industry

“It is commonly misunderstood that FADs make it easier to catch fish,” David Dodd says. “It’s still a game of skill and fair play, only closer to the shore.”

The revenue and jobs that recreational fishing brings is helping to diversify local economies and job markets. The benefits of the new FADs for the recreational fishing sector are fuel efficiency and safety. You can now fish at 4 or 5 nautical miles instead of 40-50 miles out at sea. For the recreational sporting industry and related tournaments based on the “Catch & Throw”, the high catch-rates of bigger fish do much to promote the sport.

“FADs are very important to my operation because they give us around a 85 percent successful catch rate,” says Captain Luis Lagrandier of Puerto Rico Sportfishing Charters, who specializes in light tackle fishing and is based in Dorado, Puerto Rico. “This high catch rate is very attractive to our guests who, of course, want to catch fish.”

Evaluating benefits of FADs

Floating FADs launched by private commercial vessels have been called out by environmental agencies. In Western and South Pacific, floating FADs are known to have increased the risk of over-fishing and by-catches (accidental catches in the nets) that threaten certain species such as tuna and shark (PEW Research Report, 2015).

Diver under water

Bluetide launched the first marine-related business innovation program in the U.S. Caribbean to assist in the creation, early development, and initial scaling of new business ventures targeted at key specific segments of the Blue Economy including those connected with Fish Aggregating Devices (FAD).

In Puerto Rico, a key factor of the program led by environmental non-profit agencies is the Collaborative FAD Research. This extensive effort benefits the bio-marine researchers’ community to capture data and track other species of fish (all protected by the regulations) while studying the changing dynamics underwater. Anticipated FAD benefits are to:

  • Reduce fishing effort on coral reef fisheries as fishers concentrate more effort on FADs
  • Relieve fishing pressure on inshore resources (reef and lagoon) by providing an alternative fishing location for those that have boats and canoes
  • Assist subsistence, artisanal, and commercial fishermen to increase their catch and reduce their operating costs

The research program from partners is also collecting time-lapse imagery from FADs to analyze vessel use — between recreational, commercial, and small fisherman. It can also track misuse, for example, a vessel that attaches itself to the FADs and risks damage. Clearly the commercial fishing projects are also expected to play by the fair rules of the game to report back the catch.

We would like Puerto Rico to position itself as an exporter of best ecosystem-building practices to other islands’ economies.

Future: Blue Your Mind Challenge

In March of 2021, Bluetide, in partnership with start-up incubator Creative Start-ups, launched “Blue your Mind ”, a call for innovations. One of the targets of the call was dedicated to FADs. The aim is to allow new features of FAD model design with maritime industry deep integration, exploring new ideas by connecting local advantageous industries, and creating more user-case studies.

“The future,” says Captain Benny, “is to see over 200 FADs installed in the next 2-3 years in Puerto Rico.” It is hoped that the collaborative efforts under the overall Strategic plan and the support of specific technologies like that of FADs, will foster the blue economy of the region while supporting resilience and sustainable models.

David Dodd explains, “We would like Puerto Rico to position itself as an exporter of best ecosystem-building practices to other islands’ economies.” He adds that, “This will, and must be, a transparent and collaborative effort.”

This article is Part Nine of a series produced by Impact Entrepreneur about current and planned “blue economy” and resilience initiatives in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and broader Caribbean. This series is an outreach effort to communicate the Blue Economy Course of Action ECN 10 found in the Economic and Disaster Recovery Plan for Puerto Rico and bluetidepr.org. Other articles in the series are listed below as they appear.

I. A New Framework for Economic Revitalization in Puerto Rico

II. Measuring Impact in Puerto Rico’s Emerging Blue Economy

III. Resilience: Two experts discuss its importance to the impact economy

IV. Restoring Coral Reefs Is One Key to Puerto Rico’s Economic Future

V. Technology and Sustainability: A Way Forward for Puerto Rico?

VI. El Bienestar Común, or How Puerto Rico is Taking Care of Itself

VII. Public-Private Partnerships Can Lead to More Local Ownership

VIII. Puerto Rico’s Place on ‘Hurricane Highway’ Key to Economic Growth

From New Delhi, Rakhi Mehra co-founded an interdisciplinary social housing venture, MHS CITY LAB in India. An MBA from Harvard, she is now adjunct faculty at teaches social entrepreneurship to young MBA at IE Business School & University of Central Asia. Living in Italy, Rakhi is interested in initiatives promoting ... Read more

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