Inventors want fishermen to benefit from green technology

Protecting livelihood and environment.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but care for the ocean environment and concern for the welfare of the underprivileged are also important motivators. New Energy Nexus, a Filipino NGO with an international network, is hoping that the local environmental protection community as well as investors in the fisheries sector ecosystems will support innovations by entrepreneurs and scientists. 

New Energy Nexus provides accelerator services, capital, mentoring, skills and networks to help clean energy entrepreneurs thrive.

According to its website, the NGO believes that getting the right resources to entrepreneurs at the right time “will unlock the clean energy solutions the world needs to tackle climate change.” 

Among its current efforts is to popularize local renewable energy innovations. One such innovation is from university-based engineers in Cagayan de Oro in the Mindanao region. These scientists and engineers formed two separate, but connected companies – Shiftech Marine and REcool to develop their respective innovations that aim to help small fishing communities. Their inventions are also meant to help stop lessen marine pollution. 

New Energy Nexus is hoping that the innovations of the two local companies will find financial support from both the private sector and government agencies. Shiftech won New Energy Nexus’ project acceleration program and P30,000 (US$540) as a prize for a hackathon event held in December 2020.  

REcool, in the meantime, won second place during the 2021 hackathon. As part of the acceleration program, New Energy Nexus gave the two companies support such as coaching and access to New Energy Nexus’ network of renewable energy advocates and institutions, so they can further their innovations.

Local fishing community.
A fisherman preparing to go out to sea.

Solar-powered batteries for fishermen

Shiftech Marine has developed a solar-powered battery dubbed “Powertubes” intended for use by small fishermen as an alternative to the car batteries they traditionally utilize for lighting needs. 

Powertubes are small, compact and cylindrical batteries that can be recharged using solar energy. The inventors came upon the idea of developing them after being exposed to the plight of local fishermen in the coastal areas of Cagayan de Oro. 

Shiftech Marine CEO and faculty member of the University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines (USTSP) Diogenes Amando Pascua did immersion work among fishermen. An electronics engineer, Pascua is working on his engineering doctorate and has a master’s in computer applications. 

“We were putting up marine sensors to determine the salinity of the ocean waters in protected areas. In the conduct of our research, we spoke to the small-scale fishermen and the sea wardens and learned the different challenges they face,” Pascua said.

Primary among these challenges, he said, was the high cost of the lead acid car batteries that power the fishermen’s lights on the boats.  Fishermen go to sea at 4 am, and they need lights to navigate the sea and also to attract fish. 

The most commonly available batteries are car batteries. They are not designed for sea use, and they drain after eight to 12 of use and they need to be recharged. Fishermen need two to three batteries for each boat trip. These batteries are loaded on the boat every fishing trip, then offloaded after, making them an inconvenient power source.

In the meantime, in the last few years, fishermen have been finding it increasingly hard to cope with the rising prices of car batteries which need to be replaced every six months or after they can no longer be charged. 

Pascua said that typically, fishermen operating one fishing boat spend at least P26,000 (US$465) a year for the batteries and getting them recharged. 

“The batteries themselves cost P12,000 (US$214) a year as each cost P6,000 (US$107). Recharge costs, on the other hand, apart from being a hassle (they have to be brought to charging stations) are also not a joke at P14,000 (US$250) a year,” he said.

Based on 2021 data, the country’s fishermen spend P16 billion (US$286 million) on batteries alone. The fisheries advocate also revealed that some of the fishermen he spoke to admitted that they sometimes get rid of the batteries by throwing them in the sea. 

“It’s a bad habit that we need to discourage—using the oceans as our garbage disposal facility,” Pascua said. 

However, with the Powertubes, fishermen will shell out only P4,000 to P6,000 (US$71 to US$107) per battery, making them 79 percent more cost-efficient. Another selling point Shiftech wants to highlight is that the tubes last longer than lead car batteries because they are lightweight, watertight, and “ruggedized” for sea use.  The body also has steel terminals that make them resistant to corrosion. 

“They are also more sustainable because they are solar-powered,”Pascua said. “The Powertubes have a battery level indicator so users can determine if the tubes need to be recharged using solar panels or wind turbines.”

Lighting on a fishing boat.
A fisherman with car battery.
Fishermen with their catch on a boat.

Solar-Powered Ice Boxes

The REcool team invented the ReCool Smartbox, a cold storage box that is solar-powered and displays the temperature. ReCool CEO Nelson Corbita explained that fishermen and fish vendors regularly spend on ice to preserve fish that they sell in the public markets.

“Ice is heavy and takes a lot of space in the styrofoam boxes that fishermen and vendors usually use. To ensure that the fish doesn’t spoil, fishermen need to put a lot of ice in the boxes.  During transport to the market, the ice also needs to be replenished,” he said.

Fishermen spend at least P30 (US$0.54) on ice every fishing trip, and another P30 if they do not immediately get the fish to the fish vendors or to the market. 

“This might seem like a small amount, but it adds up to a lot in a year. If they are able to save on ice, fishermen can have more money to take home to their families, Corbita said.

A mechanical engineer, Corbita has a master’s degree in science in mechanical engineering from the Southern Taiwan University of Science and Technology and a doctorate in business and management from USTSP.

Apart from wanting to help fishers cut down on their ice expenses, he said that ReCool also wants to encourage fishermen to help in efforts to stop marine plastic pollution.

“Often fishermen throw the plastic bags the ice is packaged in overboard. This contributes to marine pollution,” he said.

A 2021 study by the Coastal Resources and Ecotourism Research, Development and Extension Center (Crerdec) of the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB) stated that scientists have found traces of microplastics and plastic debris in at least 10 marine sites across the Philippine archipelago.

The study also revealed that fishermen in Tañon, Manila Bay (near Maragondon, Cavite), Subic Bay, Lamon Bay, Boracay Island, Taklong Island National Marine Reserve, Davao Gulf, Butuan Bay, Iligan Bay and Apo Reef Natural Park, have for at least the last three years been catching plastic and other garbage in their nets instead of fish. 

This plastic trash is said to cause contamination in the country’s largest marine protected areas. The same study explained that because of weathering, wave action, exposure to sunlight, and other elements in the open sea, plastic degrades into microscopic sizes of between 20 to 5,000 microns (half a centimeter). One micron is one-millionth of a meter.

Jon Alfonso Horvidalla, science research specialist of Crerdec in a March 2022 article, Microplastics: Invisible bane to PH fishermen, explained that microplastics can be “retained inside body tissues of living things” and can damage cell walls.  He also said that microplastics compromise coral health and worsen coral exposure to other stressors. 

ReCool’s Corbita said that if fishermen use the Smartbox, they can eliminate or at least lessen the use of actual ice while at sea and even when they get to shore. “The Smartbox only uses seawater and sunlight to keep the fish refrigerated. No need to buy ice and fishermen no longer have to throw plastic bags overboard,” he said. 

The Smartbox is made from either recycled small refrigerators or the typical styrofoam box. It uses Shiftech’s Powertubes and thermoelectric modules. The box is kept at 10 degrees Celsius – the optimum temperature to preserve fish.

Corbita said they developed their innovation with the aim to help the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to conserve Philippine marine resources by providing sustainable technologies to the sector of municipal capture fisheries. 

Vendors selling fish along street in hot and humid weather.

Preventing fish wastage 

Both Shiftech and ReCool are serious about fulfilling their social responsibility to help low-income fishermen. They said that while Filipino municipal fishermen spend much on batteries and ice, not to mention the exhausting effort of fishing itself, they earn very little because of the dwindling fish catch. Pascua explained that sometimes fishermen have to reduce the number of hours they spend fishing to cut operational costs. 

“But that’s not the worst of it. The fish wastage is also large, 20 to 30 percent of the fish catch ends up rotting on the shore. Fish is a very perishable item, and there’s a small window when they’re still fresh and sellable. We asked if the fishermen can’t just take the fish home for their own consumption, but of course they can’t be expected to eat the same thing every day for weeks and months on end,” he said.

Corbita said that ultimately what they want to develop is a cold chain logistics system for municipal fishermen and fish vendors. 

“We want to offer cold chain storage transportation services that comes with an app. We also want to develop the first modern boat with a cold chain delivery system in the Philippines with reliable service to our small fishermen. Innovations like the Powertube and the SmartBox are only the beginning, but we need support to develop them and have them mass produced,” he said.

The engineers of Shifttech and ReCool said they are determined to develop their innovations and continue testing them in various fishing communities. 

“We are committed to developing smart technologies to help ensure the sustainability of our marine resources, and we also want our fishermen to benefit from these technologies,” Pascua said.

All photos credit: Shifttech

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