“We are fishermen,” was the simple reply when asked why a group of Norwegians would go all-in for longline fishing in Antarctic waters, oceans apart from their North Sea home base.
“Any new opportunity in the fishing industry is exciting for us,” Arne Birkeland said. He’s the CEO of Pesquera Azul, a Norwegian-owned longline fishing company operating out of Uruguay. He and his founding partners see huge potential in the Patagonian toothfish industry, not least because the current fleet is made up of older vessels and inefficient methods.
With an innovative new vessel and longline technology to increase both volume and quality of the catch, Pesquera Azul and the fishermen behind it are set to change all that.
Arguably the main challenge for longline toothfishing is the whale population taking fish from the lines in large numbers. Studies have shown that as much as 70% of the catch is taken by whales.
“This reduces the catch, and depletes fish stock as well,” he said.
“Toothfish stock is slow to build. If we can reduce the number of caught fish needed to fill quotas, we can help maintain the strength of the stock.”
Pesquera Azul’s innovative Sago Extreme concept, developed by Sago Solutions AS, encloses the catch using a cage that runs along the line, collecting and protecting live fish until they can be brought on board. Damage to the fish caused by gaffing when hauling laden lines is also eliminated.
“Some of the most productive fishing grounds are contaminated by lost equipment,” Arne Birkeland said, explaining that for years the fleet has had to avoid these fishing grounds due to these ghost lines. Now Pesquera Azul is taking initiative for the cleanup.
The new Ocean Azul is equipped with the Ghost Gear Cleaner toolkit to collect lost gear and return it to shore, and Ocean Azul is working with its own stronger lines to reduce breakage, thus reducing both lost catch and lost gear.
“Our goal is to have a vessel that retrieves more lines than it loses,” he said.
A key feature of Ocean Azul is an extension housing the Sago Pool, an adjustable opening in the hull to bring the catch into a protected space, instead of hauling lines over the side or through a moonpool. Lines are also deployed from the enclosed Sago Pool, eliminating bird strikes. In case of problems with the new technology, there are also backup systems ready to be used.
The venture also brings economic benefit for the local and regional economies.
“We have a local representative running the company in Uruguay, and Ocean Azul will be a Uruguayan-registered vessel employing local crews,” Arne Birkeland said, estimating that the enterprise should create 40-50 new local jobs.
“Sustainable fishing is a high priority for regional and local authorities, and our concept can help them achieve this goal,” he said.
“A big part of what we are doing is helping to bring a higher standard of operations to the region.”
Following delays due to Covid-19 restrictions, Ocean Azul is ready to go and Pesquera Azul will be conducting tests of the new systems as they go along, providing an objective comparison with traditional methods. The tests will be documented by third parties to ensure validity, including local scientists and experts – and Arne Bikeland sees this as a joint Norwegian-Uruguayan project.
“We are in contact with the Uruguayan authorities in order to present the benefits of this project to both countries, and to Antarctic longline fishing. Uruguay wants to be known as a secure investment environment, and we feel confident in getting their full support for this significant investment in the Uruguayan economy,” he said.
“We can improve the catch and strengthen fish stock, while significantly improving working conditions and safety for crews. These are the things that really matter for everyone in the fishing industry.”