In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan is joined by two professors from ASU, Dr. Jennifer Blain Christen and Dr. Jesse Senko, to discuss an innovative solution for maintaining biodiversity in our oceans by using technology to reduce fishing bycatch and protect species like sea turtles and whales while supporting the business of fishers around the globe.
Dr. Jennifer Blain Christen is an associate professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Bioelectrical Systems and Technology Lab at ASU. Dr. Jesse Senko is an assistant research professor and Senior Sustainability Scientist at ASU. Their collaboration aims to maintain the oceans’ biodiversity by reducing the impact of fishing bycatch.

To discover more about how marine biology and technology collaborate to create smart fishing nets that maintain the biodiversity balance, tune in to this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet or check the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.

Key highlights

  • 03:33 – 05:50The problem, fishing bycatch impacts population of critical species –  Almost 90% of global commercial fishing is done by fisherpersons in small boats using gill nets that sit on the water’s surface or just below it. Species like sea turtles and whales unintentionally get caught and perish in these nets, affecting their population and the overall biodiversity balance. Both species feed on phytoplankton, which helps complete the carbon cycle of transferring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the ocean floor. 
  • 12:20 – 18:30 Challenges in developing and implementing a solution – For a start, the identified solution needed to be self-sustaining and easy to implement. It also required the buy-in of the fishers, and it needed to be a commercially viable solution. Above all, it needed to be effective in reducing the fishing bycatch. Dr. Jesse did the initial groundwork by studying fishing patterns in different geographies and measuring the quantum of normal bycatch to have a benchmark for measuring improvement. The problem then moved to the laboratory, where Dr. Jennifer and her team worked on developing a solution that would work in all-case conditions.
  • 18:50 – 22:33Smart fishing nets, the concept and development – Dr. Jennifer and her team needed to address several research issues, including the ability of the solar cells to recharge in different conditions and the longevity of the LED bulbs. Design challenges included developing a cylindrical solar cell that could recharge under all-case water and atmospheric conditions while delivering illumination for an extended period. The product required built-in fail-safes with negligible maintenance for ease of adoption with the end users. The solution was to attach transparent cylinders containing a solar cell and a flashing LED light to the nets. 
  • 22:52 – 25:40Smart nets cut fishing bycatch by over seventy percent, testing, and adoption – The LED lights were attached to the nets of fishers in Mexico. Over the next few weeks, Dr. Jesse measured a sustained drop of over seventy percent in the fishing bycatch. The bycatch reduction was also accompanied by a rise in the catch volume by ten to twenty percent. This was a double win for both the fishers and the sustainability effort. So successful was the experiment that when Dr. Jesse asked the fishers to return the LED lights at the end of the experiment, they all requested as one to be allowed to keep the lights. Talk about ease of adoption!
  • 28:25 – 32:12The way forward with design innovation and mass adoption – The two teams have developed and tested a few hundred of these lights, and the next step is to scale up the production to a few thousand and test them across different geographies. A collaboration with Synapse has refined the product to where it is possible to identify the bycatch species by different colored lights; there’s a bit of AI at play here. Both teams view the experiment as a win-win, mission-based solution rather than one with a commercial overtone. The idea is to sustain biodiversity while benefiting the local fishing communities. 


Dylan: Hello, and welcome to Hardware to Save a Planet. We have two guests today, Dr. Jesse Senko and Dr. Jennifer Blain Christen, and we’ll be talking about what they’re doing through their work at Arizona State University to protect biodiversity in the oceans. Biodiversity is important for a lot of reasons, but it’s a big deal, even just from the perspective of atmospheric carbon reduction. The United Nations has called biodiversity our strongest natural defense against climate change. Because a healthy and diverse planet is a massive natural carbon sink, biodiversity in the ocean is being decimated by the fishing industry. Almost 40% of the world’s fishing catch is caught unintentionally. The bycatch includes whales, sharks, and sea turtles, but Jesse and Jennifer have a solution to reduce that. To introduce them quickly, Jennifer is an associate professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Bioelectrical Systems and Technology Lab at ASU. Her research involves implantable devices and biosensors, and outside of saving sea turtles, she’s doing a range of other things, including making HPV and COVID-19 diagnostics more accessible to people across the globe. Jesse is an assistant research professor and senior sustainability scientist at ASU. His research focuses on strategies to keep marine animals safe while enabling commercial fishing operations and supporting the communities that depend on them. This work has been featured in CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, National Geographic, The Economist, NPR, USA Today, Bloomberg, Forbes, and now, the cherry on top, the Pièce de résistance. The Hardware to Save a Planet podcast. So welcome and thank you, Jesse and Jennifer, for joining us. Really happy to have you.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having us.

Jesse: Likewise.

Dylan: So you’re both world experts in your respective fields, which on the surface seem pretty unrelated, yet here you are, having made something really important together. I’m excited to get to know you both and hear how that came to be. Jesse, maybe we’ll start with you. And I just kind of have to get this out of the way. You’re at ASU I think, outside of Phoenix, right? Basically a landlocked desert. My mom lives outside of Phoenix. I know I kind of know the area there. Landlocked desert. But you’re studying marine animals. What’s up with that?

Jesse: Yeah, I get asked that a lot. So I did my PhD at ASU, and then when I was looking for PD programs, I was really impressed by ASU and our mission to be inclusive. One thing that I really admire about this university is we define ourselves by who we include and not who we exclude. And it sounds a little bit cheesy, but it’s important. And a lot of our research with fishing communities and what marginalized people and communities is all about being included and all, including everybody.

Dylan: Your focus, your research on protecting these big, iconic species in the ocean. In your words, Jesse. I’d love to hear why that is an important problem to be solved.

Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, when we think about these species, often the public is drawn to them because they’re charismatic, right? I mean, sea turtles are really graceful, beautiful animals, whales, such, and other species as well. But what we don’t often recognize is they play profoundly important roles in their ecosystems. And in many cases, especially for sea turtles, they’re really ecological roles that are not fulfilled by any other species. They’ve been around. In the case of sea turtles, they’ve been around for over 100 million years. They’re not that much different than they were 100 million years ago, and they play these very important roles. So, yeah, they’re cute and they’re charismatic, but they’re really important. We think of things like whales, right? I mean, amazing carbon sequesters. When thinking about climate change, which is important for your podcast, whales, for example, are still at really reduced abundances pre whaling, right. They’re not in many ways, they are not fulfilling their ecological roles. Same with sea turtles. Sea turtles, although many sea turtle populations have increased pretty impressively over the past 20 to 30 years, they’re still, in most cases, not even close to what they historically were pre commercial exploitation of them. Some examples are leatherback. Sea turtles feed exclusively on jellyfish, right? Their nature’s way of controlling jellyfish populations. Green turtles are herbivores. They’re grazers, fluxville. Turtles feed on sponges. They help keep coral reefs healthy, and so on and so forth. And so it’s very important to protect these animals because there really are no other species that are capable of fulfilling their ecological roles.

Dylan: So say a little bit more about whales being carbon sequestration. Good for carbon sequestration. How does that work?

Jesse: Yeah, so whales, I mean, feed primarily on plankton, right? And so you’ve got phytoplankton, which is small algae and small plants, and then you’ve got zooplankton, which are these small microorganisms. And so they feed on the phytoplankton. They capture all that carbon, and then the whales ingest them, right? So there’s a whole carbon cycle. And then when the whale dies, all that carbon gets sequestered on the ocean floor, and it does not go into the atmosphere. So, very important. And you can imagine pre whaling, there were whales everywhere in the ocean. They were not as rare as they are now. Some populations have recovered, but most of the large whales really have not recovered and aren’t even close to what they were pre whaling. So that’s really important for the environment.

Dylan: Very interesting. And on the turtles. So a lot of these turtles move, at least they spend most of the majority of their life in the sea, right? And then in many cases, they have some interaction with the land. Right. They lay eggs on the land. I don’t know how much of their life they spend on land. We had this really interesting chat with Abe Schneider from Natel Energy. They’re a hydroelectric company. And he described how salmon play a really important role in transferring biomass from the ocean back, upstream, inland, and then they die and decompose and support ecosystems inland. Do turtles play a similar role in transferring biomass from what they’re eating in the ocean to the shore?

Jesse: Absolutely. That’s another thing that is not really well known about a lot of these marine megafauna when you think about the ones that come up on land. So sea turtles, what we call pinniped sea lions and seals and seabirds, they all transport nutrients from the ocean, which is really nutrient rich, terrestrial areas that tend to be really poor in nutrients. So in the case of sea turtles, beaches all over the world are very low in nutrients. And so a turtle, when it comes and lays its eggs, those eggs hatch. Right? You have all sorts of nutrients in the eggs. You have the egg shells themselves, which contain a lot of calcium. You have some of the hatchlings that don’t survive. All of that input of energy helps actually sustain ecological sustaining these terrestrial systems and helps really you think about too, like dunes, sand dunes and stuff really important when we think about climate change as well, in terms of having healthy beach ecosystems that can buffer some impacts from storms. So these animals are really important. Then you think about animals like seabirds and sea lions, also through giving birth, but through defecating, through pooping. You’ve got a lot of nutrients through feeding. And so these are all really important roles that these animals play not just in the oceans, but in the terrestrial environment.

We didn’t want to be the Western conservationist telling fishing communities not to fish; instead, we wanted to tell them to continue fishing and even use the gillnet, but to do it in a more sustainable way.

— Dr. Jesse Senko

Dylan: Okay. I’m convinced. So if we think about the problem you’re solving and I took a swing at it at the beginning, but as I understand it, these commercial fishing operations are using big nets to capture a target fish population. But there’s this unintentional by-catch. Is that right?

Dylan: And I’d love to hear what you’re doing yeah. If you could describe what you’re doing to reduce that.

Jennifer: So big commercial fisheries are clearly problematic, right? Because you’re talking about huge vessels, a ton of fishing gear, a lot of effort. But what we really focus on are what are termed small-scale or artisanal fisheries? And I hesitate to even use the word artisanal or small scale because it kind of comes across as dinky. But there’s nothing dinky about these fisheries. About 90% of the world’s fisheries are small scale. They’re these artisanal fisheries which are everywhere all along the planet in coastal areas. And they incur really high by-catch, particularly gill net fisheries. Gill nets are essentially a wall of netting either set at the surface of the ocean or on the ocean floor. And they can be really indiscriminate in what they catch. Pretty much whatever goes into that net can become entangled. This is really problematic when you think about what we call the air-breathing marine megafauna. So animals that have lungs just like us and breathe air. So these would be all your sea turtles, all your seabirds and all your marine mammals.

Dylan: They’re drowning, basically.

Jesse: Yeah, they’re drowning. And so they get entangled in these nets and they drown. And then even animals such as sharks that don’t have lungs, but they have gills, most shark species need to swim continuously to pump water over their gills. And so even animals like sharks and some other species end up getting killed in these nets. And so they’re really problematic from an ecological standpoint. From a fisher perspective, though, they’re also problematic because almost all fishers don’t really want to be catching these animals because you can imagine they’re really difficult to remove from a net. We work in Mexico and our fishers typically fish with anywhere from 400 to 800 meters of net, sometimes up to a few kilometers, depending on the location. But they’re out in 16 to 20 foot skiffs. And in the Pacific Ocean or in the Gulf of California, when you have a three to four foot sea turtle in that net, and then imagine if you’ve got ten of them in your net and you’re in a little boat in the Pacific Ocean. It’s very difficult to remove that. So oftentimes what the fishers do is they just cut the nets. And so that also creates problems for them because they’ve got to repair those nets, they lose fish catch from them. It takes them time to remove them from the nets. It can also be very dangerous if you’re on a small vessel and you’ve got a bunch of bi-catch, particularly large animals, and whether they’re alive or dead, it’s very, very dangerous dealing with these animals and trying to get them out of your net and continue fishing. So these are the sorts of problems that we seek to address.

Dylan: And what is the solution? How are you addressing it?

Jesse: The solution is basically working with people like Jennifer to try to develop new technologies. That our goal is very simple. It’s how do you reduce by-catch of these charismatic and very ecologically important marine species while allowing fishers to continue to fish? So, historically, most conservation efforts have focused on just shutting down fisheries. We know that that’s just not a practical solution and it’s not just an equitable solution. These fishers don’t want to catch these animals either, but they need to make a living. And in most of these regions throughout the world, they can’t just pick up another job. Right? I mean, it’s not that fishing in most of these coastal communities is really the only game in town. The other important thing to recognize is fishers want to fish. Fishers like the fish. In many cases, these are people that have grown up on the water. They take enormous pride and joy from being on the water. And so historically, you’ve basically had mostly white Western conservationists telling people from typically developing nations that they can’t fish or that they have to restrict their fishing effort. So we’ve taken the opposite approach. We’ve basically said, no, we want you to fish, and even, in fact, even use gill nets. But how can we help you make them more sustainable? A well known approach has been to develop solar powered lights that illuminate the nets, and that’s how we brought Jennifer into this project.

Dylan: Okay, cool. Yeah, let’s talk about those lights and Jennifer’s role. Jennifer, as I understand it, you’re at the intersection of biology and electronics. That’s kind of where a lot of your research lies, but you’re not always focused on preserving marine biodiversity. Maybe quickly. Before we talk about these solar powered lights on the nets, what are some examples of some other things you’ve worked on?

Jennifer: I work a lot on point-of-care diagnostics. I work on implantable devices, wearable devices. So my focus is really highly deployable electronics for use in what turns out to be sort of a happy accident, maybe warm and salty environments because that’s what our body is.

Jennifer: So that happened to work out really well when I was introduced to Jesse. So my expertise is in making electronics work in an environment that usually they don’t work in.

Dylan: Okay. Got you. So the body and oceans have some similar kind of technical challenges. How did you and Jesse find each other?

Jennifer: So I think Jesse had contacted some of the people who had expertise in solar power at Arizona State University. And we have a really big solar program here. But I think most of those individuals had not had experience in trying to deploy solar power in such a remote environment, low resource setting. And that also turns out to be a lot of my expertise, especially the diagnostics. I’ve worked in a lot of underserved communities, low resource settings, and so I’ve put a lot of effort into understanding what the needs are and how to design for that really highly deployed electronics application. And that works really well with this project as well.

Dylan: It almost reminds me of, like, Captain Planet or something like pulling the best resources from these disparate areas to field sort of the dream team to make this happen. It’s really cool. It’s hard to imagine many environments other than places like ASU or something like that could happen.

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s one of the reasons I really like what I do here. I get to work with so many different people from so many different backgrounds. I’m just naturally a really curious person. You’re listening to Jesse’s talk. Isn’t that fascinating?

Jennifer: I get to, for a job, listen to people talk about things the way Jesse is explaining how marine megafauna affects the environment and the biodiversity. And I get to do that over and over again. So it’s really a lot of fun.

Dylan: Yeah, that’s amazing. And I’m sure Jesse loves listening to you talk about how electronics work or don’t work in salty environments. Don’t want to put words in your mouth, Jesse, but that’s amazing. Jennifer, maybe you could describe for us what this kind of physical piece of hardware that you’re helping to design to work in these salty environments. What does it look like and how does it work?

Jennifer: So a lot of this actually came from that trip. There was a lot of inspiration there. So I got to talk to many of the fishermen, and I heard so many fascinating things, so many things that really changed my perspective on how to approach this problem. I think one of the points that was made earlier, the thing that sticks with me the most that I heard from the fishers, there’s a fisherman who said that sustainability means fishing forever. And Jesse sort of set up that context. I had thought, well, the fishers, they’re not going to want to do this. They’re not going to want to have to sacrifice some of their catch to be more sustainable. But really, they wanted to fish forever, and they wanted their children to fish forever. They want their grandchildren to fish forever. So there was a lot that went into that mindset. And in addition to that, what we heard is they wanted the lights that were being used. Previously, we had thought about how we can make them better? How can we add the solar aspect into it? They wanted them to be a buoy. They wanted them to really be integrated as a buoy in the fishing net itself. And so that really led to a lot of the constraints we had on the form factor, how big it is, the size, the shape, and so forth. We went out and we watched how the fishermen pulled in the nets onto the boat, onto the deck, what kind of forces were being used, how they deployed them, how they released them, and brought them back. So there were a lot of things that I was able to observe firsthand that really led to a lot of the design that you see thinking about symmetry, thinking about size, shape, thinking about buoyancy, all of those things that, from my perspective, I bring to science. But there’s a lot of practicality that comes in and meshes with the science to create something that’s useful.

Dylan: And since we’re on a podcast here, we don’t have the benefit of visuals, although we will put in the show notes, some pictures of the devices. But can you describe it sounds like a buoy with integrated lights and a solar panel, is that right? And then they’re attached to the gill net itself that’s used in these fishing operations.

Jennifer: Right. So if you imagine sort of a cylindrical transparent device and there’s a hole in the center, so you can thread a fishing line through it, and within there, we have encased a flexible solar panel. So the solar panels themselves are deformed to fit inside of the cylinder. And what that means is, no matter how they’re rotated, they’ll still have sunlight when they’re placed in the sun, regardless of their orientation, they’ll have sunlight hitting them and will be collecting energy. The other thing we did was to put all of the electronics inside. And we have a lot of advancements that really a lot of my career has been bolstered by the advances in microelectronics smaller, better, faster. And so the amount of computational power we can put into these things is really quite incredible. So we have a circuit that controls the charging, that ensures that the charge goes properly into the lights. And then we had to think about how to make them energy efficient. And a lot of the work that’s taken quite some time has been in. How do you determine how much light you need? How bright? Is it bright enough? And so that’s led to some very, very interesting collaborations with Jesse and our graduate students in determining what is the response, how intense does light need to be? How long does it need to be off? Can we turn them on and off? And a lot of other really interesting aspects to understanding how to optimize technology in their highly dynamic environment. And I think that’s one thing that was incredibly challenging is that there’s so much going on in a marine environment in terms of the turbidity or the murkiness of the water. Sometimes there’s seagrass, sometimes there’s silts. There’s so many different potential environments that we have to make this functional in. So we had to really think about how we can modify all of those different parameters to optimize for the particular environment? There’s so much to learn. You could spend a lifetime really learning about all these things.

We wanted to create a system that they didn’t have to think about and manage actively. Otherwise, they wouldn’t adopt it over the long run.

— Dr. Jesse Senko

Dylan: So a couple of things you said there, I just want to make sure I understand. So there’s a product today that these fishers use that lights they use they put lights on nets today to deter by-catch. Is that right?

Jesse: Part of the reason that net illumination emerged as a potential solution to these problems was that we realized in the early 2010s, that if you stuck either a green LED light or a green light stick, chemical light stick on a net, you can get reductions in sea turtle by-catch.

Jesse: And we didn’t quite understand, we still really don’t fully understand what’s going on. The hypothesis is that light illuminates the net, and sea turtles and other animals swim, and they see the net and they say, hey, this is a hazard. I’m out of here. Because if I get entangled in this, I can’t come up to the surface to breathe. Whereas fish have gills, and so fish may not view it in the same way. Fish don’t have 100 million years of evolution that needs to get up to the surface to breathe or the fish may not be able to see that certain wavelength or may respond differently from a different sort of fish. In fact, in many cases, fishes are attracted to light. So in the early 2010s, we started essentially just putting lights on gill nuts, and we were finding reductions in sea turtle bike at around 50%. The problem is these lights, the chemical light sticks, only last about 24 hours, right? And then they have to be tossed. So where do they end up? In most cases, they end up in the ocean.

Dylan: In the ocean?

Jesse: Yeah. Or if they end up in somebody’s backyard or something. I mean, in a lot of these developing nations where there are intense fisheries, there are not proper ways to dispose of these things. And so you’ve got chemicals in there, you’ve got plastic. And then for the battery, the traditional lights, the LED lights, were run strictly by double A batteries. And so, one, they were really hard to take off, but two, the batteries only tended to light only really lasted at full brightness for about two to three weeks, maybe a month max. And so where are those batteries going to end up? Those batteries are going to either end up in the ocean or they’re going to end up chances are they’re not going to be properly disposed of in most of these areas. Apart from that, it’s just really expensive. That recurring operational costs for batteries. And, I mean, fishers can’t afford to be buying light sticks for every day or batteries. I mean, you’re talking hundreds upon hundreds, potentially thousands of batteries. They don’t even have access to these, right? I mean, in most of these coastal communities, they can’t even get the amount of batteries. And that’s just one boat. And so that’s why we essentially said as part of my postdoc was, how can we develop something that basically harnesses renewable energy? And so we went to Jennifer and to other engineers, and one of the first things they told us, which was really interesting, was you got to flash the light. We looked at things like underwater, kind of like turbines and other things that generate, like, wave energy. We looked at magnets and things. Basically, we decided that solar was the best option, but then within that, it had to be a blinking light because if we use the static light, they would have to take it out and basically charge it in the sun. So that was another obstacle to overcome because all the previous studies with the light sticks or the battery powered lights had been with static green light. We were a little nervous, but it turned out that we actually got a better reduction in bi-catch from a blinking light. We don’t know why, but it may be just in nature, a lot of things blink because through evolution, organisms have also figured out that that’s a way to conserve energy. And so it may be that they’re more responsive to the blinking light. It’s more of a sort of a warning type signal. Who knows? We don’t know. It may be the way that it illuminates the net. It may be a number of different things. But that was the real hard engineering challenge to figure out. Then how do you optimize that for battery power and for battery consumption? And can you still get a reduction in bi-catch? And so when we first put these solar powered buoys on the net, we were all really nervous. Crap. Is blinking, like, going to work? And our initial trials have shown close to a 70% reduction, which actually builds upon previous studies. So very exciting about these initial findings.

Dylan: Okay. And luckily, the blinking works better. I’m curious, how do you validate that? Are you just running big, controlled studies?

Jesse: We are. We haven’t actually the way I should phrase the blinking light appears to work better. What we have not done is a side by side comparison where we have the same exact light at the same spacing, at the same direction, et cetera, et cetera, in the same location where we have a blinking and a static light. But what we can say is that a blinking solar powered buoy tends to work a little bit better than a static battery powered or light stick. Now, it may be because of the blinking. It may be because these are bigger and they illuminate the net differently. It may be because of the intensity of the light. We don’t know. But fortunately, what we do know is that if you blink the light, it works. And this is really important because fisheries, what they do in Mexico and throughout the world is they generally set gill nets around sunset, and they retrieve them around sunrise. So most gill net fisheries will soak overnight. And so we needed that to stay blinking throughout the night. And then what we didn’t want to have happen is then pull the nets in the morning and then have it take the lights off and put the lights in the sun. It’s just way too much work. So a lot of times what they’ll do is they’ll just pull their nets in and they’ll leave them on the boat during the day. They might hang them up to kind of dry them off and to get some of the algae and other plant matter off the net. And then also just during the day, they’re not completely soaking overnight, so they do get some light. We essentially wanted to create a system where the fishers didn’t have to think about it and didn’t have to actively do it because otherwise they wouldn’t have used them because they just would have created more work for them. So that’s kind of the beauty of blinking. Now, Jennifer can probably speak more so I know her and her team did a lot of trials on optimizing that duty cycle and then that flash rate. That was a bit of intuition and a lot of science behind it, too.

Jennifer: Some of the consideration has to be that we can’t design some of the only works in optimal conditions. So we had to think about days that were overcast, days that are not going to have that intense Arizona sun that we’re lucky to have here. So we wanted to make sure that whatever we use is really going to function well, regardless of what was happening with the weather or any particular transient events that were going on.

Jesse: Yeah, and it’s funny, because when we first gave these to them when we first brought them to Mexico and gave them to the fishers, we gave them to them strictly to run for this experiment, and they didn’t want to give the lights back. They were basically like, no, we’re keeping these. And we didn’t have the heart to say no. So we were like, all right, we’ll just have to build more. But they’re still using them. They’re the only fishing community in the world right now that is actively fishing on a daily basis, pretty much with solar powered gill nuts, which is really cool. And they’re reporting virtually no bi-catch anymore.

Dylan: That’s amazing.

Jesse: And the other cool thing is that it’s actually slightly increasing their target catch. So they’re seeing about a ten to 20% increase in their main target catch, which in this fishery is yellowtail. It’s a type of amberjack. Yeah. So they’re obviously excited about it because at the very least, it’s not reducing what they’re going after. And now they’re not having to remove turtles from nuts every day. Then the other thing to keep in mind is they don’t want to be killing turtles either. I mean, that’s this notion. There’s this belief that, like, fishers are just out in it for themselves. And they care about the turtles, too. They’ll tell you, yeah, there’s less turtles now. And the turtles are really important for the environment. And in many cases, a lot of what we’ve learned about turtle biology is actually from the fishers. They know more than most of the scientists because they’re out there every single day and they don’t want to see them decline. And a lot of fishers have told us things like, yeah, when the turtles started declining, so did the fishery. So it’s really important. So they’re really excited about this. This is why we’re so excited about the collaboration with Synapse, because we’re, like, desperate to get more lights built, because it’s challenging to build lights in a university setting. And so we’ve been contacted by, I think, now five different continents from scientists all over the world who want to use these lights and want to test them for all different species and fisheries. And it’s been a little depressing because we’re like, oh, sorry, we don’t have enough. We barely have enough for our few study sites in Mexico. So there’s a huge demand for this.

Dylan: That’s a good problem to have.

Jesse: Yeah, right.

Anything you create in engineering, there are always things you can do to improve, refine and reiterate it.

— Dr. Jennifer Blain Christen

Dylan: And just to highlight it, I think that there’s a really important takeaway there. The Fishers are not the villain of this story. Like they are looking for this solution. Their interests are aligned with sustainability and protecting biodiversity. And I think that might run counter to the kind of surface level interpretation people might have. So that’s really important. So since you mentioned Synapse, actually, I’d love to just talk about that. Jennifer, as we take this to the next level, what are some of the challenges and how is the Synapse team going to help you get there?

Jennifer: Sure. So Jesse mentioned it’s been really challenging in a university setting to try and create enough of these illuminated buoys to run the studies, to distribute to the people who’d like to use them. And so I’m really excited to bring in some of the expertise from Synapse to help us figure out, can we refine these, can we make it better? Anything you create in engineering, there’s always things that you can do to improve, to refine, to reiterate. And so I’m really excited about that. My expertise is really in the electronics themselves. And so I’m excited to work with people who have a little bit different expertise, maybe in some of the solid mechanics. Can we make the structure of the buoy a little bit better? Can we maybe modify the way that we’ve put the different components together to make it maybe a little more functional for the Fishers and to really think about how this optimization problem can be solved? So it’ll be great to work with people who have different expertise and bring that to the table.

Dylan: How many of these lights are we going to need?

Jesse: I think for us right now, we want to move production into the hundreds. Once they’re in the hundreds, we can test them in different areas. What we don’t want to do is just flood the market with lights right away because there’s still so much we don’t understand and these can be optimized so much better and they can be built better, they can be designed better. But this was a really important step, right? Because it basically showed you can reduce turtle by-catch, by harvesting energy from the sun, and that’s huge. While maintaining fishing catch. Right now, if we could produce them in the hundreds, that would be a huge bonus. I think then we want to kind of move to the thousands. And eventually, though, I could see a scenario where these are a really globally available product that perhaps you could have different lights. You can optimize them per fishery. Jennifer has been talking about building like a smart net where actually the light depends on. I’ll let Jennifer talk about it but essentially that a light that could sort of in real time, change its properties based on what species are in the net or in the area.

Dylan: I’m sensing some AI here. Tell us more, Jennifer.

Jennifer: Machine learning is everywhere, right?

Jennifer: I think this also relates a bit to the fishers as well. One of the things that’s been fascinating to me is how much the fishermen are really kind of engineers themselves. They love tinkering. And we set up our buoys to use little TV remote controls to program them, so we can program them to change the duty cycle, change the intensity, change the period of the flashing. And I think they’ve had so much fun playing around it’s a little remote and programming the buoy. So it’s led me to wonder, do we want to let them play around with this? Let them do that. But I think within that, we can also do a little bit of autonomous adjustment in terms of sensing what the turbidity is and adjusting the intensity. So if you think about this from the perspective of the by-catch as they’re sensing the emitted lights, it’s not necessarily how intense we emit, it’s how intense it is when they see it. So if you imagine seeing a flashlight on a clear day versus a really, really foggy day, it’s more important to think about, from your perspective, what you are seeing, not what’s emitted. And so we can do a little bit of autonomous adjustment based on the local environment to optimize for that particular daytime ambient environment. And so, as the tides are changing, the waves are changing, turbidity is changing, perhaps the number of species that are interacting within that change. We can sense all of those things and have some autonomy in the emitted flashing so that they are able to sense that. And we can reduce the amount of power. Again, really thinking about maintaining enough power to last throughout the cycle or the day of fishing.

Dylan: Yeah, that’s interesting. Are there other things you’re thinking about to kind of optimize for performance? Is it all about your variables: the intensity of the light, color of the light, the frequency of flashing? Is that just about iterating on those things? Are there other things you’re thinking about?

Jennifer: I think that we can also think about what the by-catch is in a particular location. So in some locations, that may be sea turtles, green turtles. In another location, there may be more sharks or rays. And so as we look at the sensory system for those individual species, we can look at what is the spectrum of light that they are most sensitive to. And that does vary per species, and their visual acuity varies also from species to species. So as we try to do this implementation, we can think about per location, what are the needs of that particular fishery in terms of the species, and then in terms of the marine environment as well. So is there a lot of seagrass there? Is this a mangrove area? Is this an area that has a lot of silt? And so all of those things are going to be potential media that the light would have to travel through or things that might make the light more diffuse or other optical interference. And so we can really think about all those things and be able to optimize per location.

We’re entering a world where we have seen the success of mission-based companies that make products for sustainability. It’s our hope that this becomes a mission-based effort that provides the lights to fishing communities and allows them to make the lights locally, thereby positively impacting the local economy twice.

— Dr. Jennifer Blain Christen

Dylan: Jesse, you talked a minute ago about the future, the potential this could solve problems globally. Every corner of the world could benefit from this. What does it take to move this from a research project to a globally scalable, I guess, business? Right? Somebody needs to be selling these things to fishers all over the world.

Jesse: Right? At this point, I think we do need to do more research. But there are, I mean, at its basic level, we need to find a manufacturing company that can build a lot of these for cheap, really cheaply.

Dylan: And so is the plan to, like, once you get to that point, do you foresee this spinning out as a company that becomes a profitable venture? Is that kind of the end game?

Jesse: I don’t know. I mean, the end game for me is how can you get as many of these as cheaply as possible in the hands of as many fishermen as possible? I’m certainly not going to be making money off selling lights or starting a company. But the other goal is to how can you circumvent some of the challenges with these lights? A lot of these countries have very heavy import taxes, for example, eventually, how can you build these? Ideally, in the country, we’ve talked about things like developing kits, like a kit, where actually, maybe non-fishers in the community can put them together. And if that can bring the cost down by a buck, great. I mean, we really need to bring the cost down, and we need to make these accessible to people, particularly people that are on the fringes and not. What we don’t want happening and why we’re being careful about this is we don’t want this to turn into sort of a boutique situation where only the well off fishers get them and then they kind of then market them as this is a sustainable seafood, and we’re fishing with solar powered lights. And the risk of that is that most of the fishers then will become marginalized even more. And so we don’t want to do that. So it’s very tricky. It’s a really tricky situation. And I think the lower hanging fruit right now is how do you get enough lights into the real bi-catch, what we call bi-catch hotspots. So the areas like Indonesia, like the Coral Triangle, Baja, Mexico, Africa and particularly Ghana, the eastern coast of Africa, too, Madagascar, Tanzania. I mean, these areas desperately need them. And so, yeah, it’s just a matter of how can we build enough and how can we do it so that we don’t disenfranchise fishers?

Dylan: Yeah, and cost must be a big factor in that. What is the cost target? I’m curious.

Jesse: It’s hard to say because even what we consider cheap. So my dream would be like a $5 light, which is probably possible if you build enough of them in China. But a $5 light if you need ten or 20 lights on a net for a fisherman in Madagascar is not going to happen. So it’s also working with NGOs, working with governments to subsidize them, and then maybe even reinventing what a light is. Like. Maybe you have kits and they can somehow put something together. They could vacuum seal something and stick a little solar panel in there in a light. And who knows?

Jennifer: To Jesse’s point, really, the hope is that this really becomes a mission-based endeavor rather than a profit-based endeavor. And so I think that we are really entering a world where we’ve seen success from many mission-based companies that have become something that can be sustainable, that can have both impact and create amazing products. So it’s really our hope that this becomes a mission-based effort that provides not only the lights to the fishing communities, but also if we’re able to move production locally to those fisheries, then we can impact the economy twice. Right. So, again, win sort of situation. But that’s really the hope is to focus on that. I think prior to that, suggesting is saying we have to have good evidence. I’m still a scientist at heart. I want to do evidence-based work. So we really need to have enough lights to provide evidence that this is something that has high efficacy in a wide variety of environments. So if we can deploy these across the globe and show that the reduction in by-catch is just as good in Baja as it is in Indonesia or Peru or wherever Jesse can get these lights deployed, I think that will help to move that mission forward.

Dylan: It’s been so much fun talking with both of you. I’ve gone and burned up most of our time. So, yeah, a few last closing questions and I think I’ll just go Jennifer and Jesse on each of these. So, Jennifer, how optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of our planet and why?

Jennifer: So I think I’m a little bit of both. I think that being at a university is healthy, sustained by optimism. Like I said, I see Jesse’s PhD student who’s so passionate about conservation biology, come and learn about the artificial intelligence machine learning and really work hand in hand with the engineers and not just one person, but all the students here are so eager to learn, to understand how we impact our world. And so I think the younger people are giving me a lot of hope that things are going to improve, that people do care about our world. And are going to put the effort into all of the different technologies. And I think we’re here talking about marine diversity, but across the globe, whether it’s on land, in the sea, in our air, there’s so much that needs to be done. And I’m really hopeful that the younger generations are going to really put their hearts into that.

Dylan: All right, kids, we’re counting on you. No pressure.

Jesse: Yeah, right.

Dylan: Jesse, what’s one other technology company or individual addressing biodiversity that you think people should know about?

Jesse: I would say in terms of I’m going to choose an individual. Actually, two individuals. It’s the brothers that we work with. Their names. Juan and Philippe Cuevas. They’re fishermen. They grew up fishing for sharks and kind of fishing a little bit unsustainably. But they live on this island, this little island in this tiny little two acre island in the middle of the Gulf of California. And they are true champions for conservation and for sustainable fishing. They’re the fishers that have been fishing with our solar powered lights. They have convinced other people on their island, but also in their nearby fishing communities, that the importance of fishing sustainably, so that their children and their children’s children are kind of like what Jennifer said in the beginning, so that they can essentially fish forever. And for them, it’s really about a way of being, it’s a way to really ensure the health of their planet. They’ve got a bunch of Hawksbill sea turtles, for example, right near their island, where they can go out and kill them and sell them on the black market for their shells and for other products and make a fortune, and they protect them full stop. And so these are the types of people that I think we need to really celebrate more. One thing that we did was we nominated them and they won for a Disney Conservation Hero Award, which was really in terms of my career, it’s one of my proudest moments, was nominating them and getting them recognition. Because I really think the big groups, the big NGOs, World Wildlife Fund and stuff, they’re obviously doing great work, but they don’t need the recognition. We really need to start focusing more on the fishers and people in the community that are making really hard but important decisions to help protect their planet. And we owe them a lot and they do not ever get the recognition they deserve. So Juan and Philippe, true champions, they’re really my heroes and I really hope that we in the future give more recognition to the people that don’t normally get it, but should.

Dylan: I love it. Thanks for saying that. Last question. I’ve met a lot of people who tell me they wish they could switch to a career that positively impacts the planet in some way. Jennifer, what advice would you give them?

Jennifer: I guess what I do is what I’ve done with my career I can look to, which is I took what I’m good at. I’m good at science, I’m good at engineering, I’m good at critical thinking, and problem solving. And I take my skills and I try to think about how I can impact? How can I improve my quality of life? How can I do something that I’m going to look back on when I’m 90 years old and feel proud to have done it? I think that for people who want to make that impact, look at what you’re good at and think about how you can do something innovative to take your skill set and bring it to an application or to a problem that you feel passionately about. And I think that that’s where really interesting things happen. Because if you have a skill set that’s outside of traditional conservation biology, you’re going to bring something innovative by taking your skill set that hasn’t necessarily been combined and bringing those two things together. That’s my perspective. I’m a bit biased because that’s what I do. I really find it interesting to try and take on different skills that we haven’t thought about combining and doing really creative things.

Jesse: To echo what Jennifer said, I will say her engineering students often are the most creative when they take my classes. Not to poop the conservation students, but they really are in the sort of conservation box. And the engineer students get there and they’re like, why don’t you do this or do that? I’m just like, Whoa, I never even thought about that. It’s a great idea. That’s very true. I think for me it sounds corny, but it’s like, just don’t give up. Like, keep trying. On one hand, this new generation, right, they’re really innovative, they’re really passionate. Sometimes they also give up easily too. And so it’s like, if something doesn’t go your way, keep trying, keep at it, and just stay at something. I know when I first started working in Mexico, like, sea turtles were on the brink of extinction. Like, they genuinely were. Like, green turtles, for example. We would go out and if we caught one or two in an entire week, we were thrilled. Now we go out and at the same sites I worked at as an undergrad. So this is 15-20 years later, and we catch 30 to 50 turtles a night, right, because their populations have increased so well. So, I mean, it took a long time, but once they increased, they started coming back at really high numbers. So it’s that, just stay in it, keep working on it, keep working on what you’re doing and be persistent. Be persistent. Really go after what you want. And eventually, the longer you’re kind of doing something, eventually you’ll see results. And it’s like, I had to work in this field for ten or 15 years before I really saw anything tangible. And sure, we want to save the planet and save animals, but we have to do it in a way where we work with people.

Dylan: I love it. And you’re both setting really great examples of all of those things. I just want to say thank you for your time. It’s been really fun hearing your story, and your passion is infectious, so I’m really excited about what you’re doing and to watch where this goes. Thank you.

Jesse: Thanks for having us, Dylan.

Jennifer: Thank you. And I’m excited to see companies like Synapse that are thinking about our ecosystem, that are thinking about things that impact the world and not just about engineering and the 10x return, but really having a core mission that aligns with keeping our world a beautiful place.

Dylan: Thanks for saying that.

Jennifer: Thank you so much.

Dylan: Appreciate that.

Jesse: Likewise.

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