Allstar Fishing's Sustainable Catch

June 2015

Karl Warr has designed a fishing net that allows undersized fish to escape unharmed

Hawke’s Bay commercial fisherman Karl Warr’s cage design to let small fish escape from his traditional fishing net, lets he and his wife Sarah run a sustainable and environmentally friendly fishing business.

Karl says people are interested in the three key messages around his fishing business:

  • Sustainability – there’s a growing demand from consumers to know how their food is produced
  • Vertical integration – a modern day lifestyle version of commercial fishing that has to embrace being environmentally conscious and being up to speed with what is happening sociologically
  • Being viable

Karl has been a recreational fisherman all his life and has always abhorred waste. The technology most trawlers use for catching fish is quite old, in terms of net designs and the ways they fish and the amount of wasteage. It didn’t used to be an issue because there was enough fish in the ocean but now we are aware that there is a limited resource with more people chasing it.

Previously Karl was contract fishing for factories, but not making very much money. Quite often now, he fishes only two miles offshore. He is mindful of being responsible with his fishing and will sometimes travel up to 40 miles away to get fish. They come closer in during summer and into deeper water in winter. There are about 220-240 fishing days each year when it’s possible to go out fishing.

Karl targets flatfish, flounder, turbot, sole and brill, and has a by-catch of gurnard and red cod. There is an extensive list of other species which he can catch in small amounts: snapper, trevally, spotted school sharks and mackerel. Catching small fish of an illegal size is killing off next year’s catch.

The current cage is made of stainless steel and it lets under-sized fish swim out the windows. It’s a built in filter for the catch, and it means that more than 90% of the catch is usable. The survival rate of trawl-caught fish is poor because they are hurt in the usual process of trawling by compression in the net. Although they are tossed back over the side, they usually float away and die. The cage gives him greater control over the things he wants to catch on the sea floor and also means that the fish which are caught are in better condition and can be sold as higher quality for more money.

The minimum size net you can fish with is 100mm. Karl has nets with 100mm holes and nets with 125mm holes. He can make the holes any size, as long as they are a minimum of 100mm and he has built the cage to fit within existing fisheries legislation.

Catching fish is similar to herding sheep into a confined space. As the net is towed across the bottom of the sea, a V shaped wing at the head of the net sweeps fish into the net. “If fish had the forethought to swim up, you wouldn’t catch a single one but they hug the bottom, and get swept into the net,” says Karl.

Some fishermen weigh down their nets with chain and weights so there is no gap around the net, but this costs a lot in terms of fuel. Fuel efficiency is something Karl had already tackled with the type of net he was using. He has now made his carbon footprint smaller than any domestic car. Someone driving to buy fish from him spends more money in fuel than he does in catching them.

He uses a very small net with wooden rounds so that the net skids across the sea floor and only uses a very fuel efficient 6.5 litres of diesel per hour.

Most commercial fishermen are asked by people if they can buy a few fish. “Previously because we were fishing for factories we weren’t in a position to offer that. Having a fish shop or even a shop on the wharf ties you to a set system. We had a handful people who wanted fish but they were flexible, and were happy to buy fish only when we had it. We knew there were more people out there but we had a marketing problem.”

Facebook has turned out to be the answer. It allows people to be connected to what they do, not just for selling fish but for a relationship, and they become extended family. Karl and Sarah’s Facebook page is called ‘Better Fishing’. Karl says “We had a radio interview, then a story, then the TV show Seven Sharp and the Facebook page exploded with people interesting in buying fish. We have now reached a critical mass in terms of customers for our gurnard by-catch.”

There doesn’t seem to be the retail demand from the current market channels for flat fish at this stage, so they export their premium flat fish, as well as having a couple of other local market options supplying outlets in Rotorua and the Auckland fish market. “I feel like we are getting paid for what we do now, and it’s a vision come true. We courier fish around the country, and instead of just sending 500g or 1kg of fish, we encourage people to work together to create larger orders.”

Sarah is really important on the marketing side and she has all the relationships with customers and keeps track of them and all sales. “While our ideas for sustainable fishing are good for us, they are not very useful on a big scale. We offer some variation to what the industry is doing. I see us having a very important place in the industry simply from having alternative outcomes which may be able to be scaled up in the future”.