The European Patent Office (EPO) has announced that British brothers Ben and Pete Kibel have been nominated as finalists in the SMEs category of the European Inventor Award 2021 for their invention of a simple, low-cost device that prevents the accidental deaths of seabirds during longline fishing.
To mitigate the problem and make commercial fishing more targeted and sustainable, engineer Ben and fisheries biologist Pete pooled their skills and resources to develop the Hookpod, a small, reusable device that encapsulates baited hooks until they sink to a depth inaccessible to seabirds. The brothers have established three SMEs to market this device and their other inventions that reduce bycatch in global fisheries.
“The Kibel brothers have combined ingenuity with their commitment to the environment to develop a solution that protects vulnerable marine life,” said EPO President António Campinos, announcing the European Inventor Award 2021 finalists.
“As SME founders they also set an example to new businesses – their patent strategy has enabled them to protect their intellectual property, scale-up production and develop new products.”
The winners of the 2021 edition of the EPO’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony on 17th June – which has this year will take place as a digital event for a global audience.
As children, an interest in the wildlife documentaries of Sir David Attenborough instilled in the brothers both a passion for the natural world and concern for the damage inflicted upon it by humans.
“His films would often highlight the plight of endangered species,” said Ben Kibel.
“We’ve always been very aware that what humans are doing to the planet and to wildlife isn’t sustainable.”
As adults, the brothers decided to take action and develop solutions to the problem of marine bycatch, using Ben’s engineering expertise to develop a simple but effective mechanical fix.
“It would have been easy to develop a sophisticated electronic depth-related system, but that would never have been operationally viable,” Pete said.
“The design challenge we faced was in making something that is bulletproof in harsh environments and can be mass produced for just a few dollars.”
The Hookpod is a clear, polycarbonate capsule that is clipped over the points and barbs of longline fishing hooks. On the surface, this prevents scavenging seabirds from getting caught on the hooks by physically blocking their access to them. The core of the device is a pressure-operated mechanism that consists of a watertight tube containing a piston and a small quantity of trapped air. Once the encapsulated hook sinks to 20 metres – out of range for most seabirds – the force generated by the water pressure on the end of the piston becomes greater than the force acting in the opposite direction, driving the piston inwards as a result. The piston continues to move until it releases a latch, which opens the device and releases the baited hook. When the fishing session is complete, fishermen can simply clip the Hookpod shut for subsequent use.
The brothers were granted a European patent for the Hookpod in 2016, which was important in attracting the investment needed to launch and market it.
“A patent provides security so that if a funder backs it, they have a time window in which the product can be sold, and they can recover their investment,” Ben said.
In addition, the device’s relative simplicity means their patent is critical to prevent others from copying it. Without patent protection, the brothers say that poor-quality imitations could damage their invention’s reputation among longline fishing operators.
Research published in 2017 compiling the results of 18 sea trials, found that one seabird death occurred per 25,000 hooks fitted with Hookpod, compared with one per 1250 bare hooks – a 95% reduction. No difference was found in target catch rates.
The Kibel brothers have established a number of SMEs, each providing solutions to improve the sustainability of marine-based industries. They set up their first business, Fishtek Ltd. in 1998, initially using their own money and any time they could spare from their other professions. In 2013, the brothers launched a separate business, Hookpod Ltd. to raise investment and bring the device to market. Since then, they have also launched different versions of the product, including one that uses a built-in LED. This is designed to replace the chemical light sticks which are used to attract fish, but often end up as plastic pollution.
In 2018, the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which protects highly migratory fish in the region, recognised the brothers’ invention as the world’s first standalone method of reducing accidental seabird deaths. The New Zealand government followed suit in 2019, and New Zealand-based vessels using the device recorded zero bycatch in the first half of 2020. A trial is underway in China, in collaboration with the Paulson Institute and a longline fishing company, to explore the impact of 2000 Hookpods used by two longline fishing vessels.
Three years after establishing Hookpod Ltd., the brothers launched their third business, Fishtek Marine, to commercialise additional inventions, including a device that emits electric fields to drive sharks, rays and skates away from fishing hooks, and another that uses sound to reduce cetacean bycatch. Following a crowdfunding campaign, Fishtek Marine Ltd. recently raised €1 million to further its research and development, marketing and recruitment.