Outsmarting the dolphins

Each year hundreds of thousands of dolphins accidentally get tangled in fishing nets and die, and fishermen in turn suffer economically from the damage caused to the nets. Now, a Dutch company has developed a device to keep dolphins away from fishing nets.

Floris Koumans (37) is not just any businessman, but he’s a businessman with a mission. His enterprise, the Cuckoo Company in Delft, offers a nest to other people’s innovations in the field of engineering. Koumans is also something of an inventor himself. He has developed several ideas including a device to keep dolphins away from fishing nets.

“In 1997, on a trip to some Greek islands, I saw how a fishing boat with dynamite and guns blew a group of dolphins out of the water, and then it became my dream to become the big saviour of dolphin.”

The dolphin problem isn’t limited to Greece or even the rest of the Mediterranean. In other countries, where fishermen use bigger and stronger nets, dolphins can’t rip the nets apart and get tangled in them and drown. Koumans says the numbers are shocking:

“We are talking about somewhere between 300,000 and a million dolphins that die each year. So it’s not only a major problem for the fishermen. At this moment there are several species of dolphins that will become extinct because of this.”

On the plane home from Greece to the Netherlands he came up with the idea of developing a device that would make it impossible for dolphins to use their echolocation capability near fishing nets and thus make it impossible for them to actually locate the fish trapped inside them.

Plastic box

Koumans and his research team worked closely with the fishing industry, wildlife organizations and a marine research institute in Scotland. The end result was the dolphin saver: a sturdy plastic box consisting of two halves, roughly the size of a videocassette, only oval. Inside are a small computer, a battery and a couple of floats.

The instrument is hooked to a fishing net and activated when it comes into contact with water. It produces signals that disrupt the dolphin’s sonar, thus creating a safe zone around the net and the catch inside.

The number of dolphin savers required per fishing net depends on the size of the net. Roughly speaking they should be no more than 200 metres apart.

Sold at 60 euros apiece, the savers aren’t cheap, but they are very effective with a proven success rate of nearly 80 percent.

Problems arise

“But then came the next problem,” says Koumans who soon discovered that nature quickly adapts to new situations:

“It’s just like when antibiotics were first discovered. After a while bacteria get resistant, so there goes your cure. In this case, there were still some compromises in the product, and dolphins being extremely intelligent, found out what the compromises were.”

While still working on further improvements to the second-generation dolphin saver, Koumans is also planning on using the same principle for devices for other sectors of the fishing industry.

“There are major problems with orcas, killer whales. There are major problems in the sardine fisheries off the coast of Morocco, major problems in tuna fisheries. With the same technology we can create specific solutions for those specific problems.”

The compromise, as Koumans puts it, was in the battery. In order to increase its life expectancy, the dolphin saver didn’t produce disrupting signals continuously but at certain intervals. It took the dolphins about six months to figure that out.

“They found out where the holes in the pattern were. They knew that each time there was a signal, you had about three to four seconds to use your own signal. I was expecting this to happen one day, but not that fast.”