Seabird saving device makes finals of European Inventor Award 2021

The UK creators of Hookpod, a low-cost device that prevents the deaths of seabirds during longline fishing, have been named finalists in the ‘SMEs’ category of the European Inventor Award 2021.

Around 300,000 seabirds, including endangered species of albatross, die annually as marine fishing bycatch. To mitigate the problem and make commercial fishing more targeted and sustainable, British brothers Ben and Pete Kibel, an engineer and fisheries biologist respectively, developed Hookpod, which is a small, reusable device that encapsulates baited hooks until they sink to a depth inaccessible to seabirds.

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The brothers have established three SMEs to market Hookpod and their other inventions that reduce bycatch in global fisheries.

Longline fishing is used by commercial operators to catch tuna, swordfish and other species in the open sea. It involves the use of lines that are tens of kilometres long, carrying thousands of hooks that catch large numbers of marine animals other than those targeted. This includes seabirds and conservationists are concerned about the tens of thousands of albatrosses that die this way annually. According to the International Union for Conversation of Nature, most of the 22 albatross species are listed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered.

“It would have been easy to develop a sophisticated electronic depth-related system, but that would never have been operationally viable,” Pete said in a statement. “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.”

22 albatross species are listed as endangered (Image by jmarti20 from Pixabay)

According to EPO, 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 below the surface – 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. 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 clip the Hookpod shut for subsequent use.

Research published in 2017 compiling the results of 18 sea trials found that one seabird death occurred per 25,000 hooks using a Hookpod, compared with one per 1,250 hooks without the device. No difference was found in target catch rates.

"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. "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."

Ben and Pete Kibel filed a European patent application for the Hookpod in 2012 which was granted in 2016. The winners of the 2021 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced on June 17, 2021.