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  • Writer's pictureBen

1 Hour STEM Design Challenge: Bycatch Activity Eco-Friendly

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This past weekend, my family of five went to the Indianapolis Zoo, a quick 25-minute drive from our home. Though we take the kids frequently, I always experience the child-like thrill while touring the stunningly beautiful Ascension St. Vincent Dolphin Pavilion with its submerged tunnel system.

Sign that says Ascension St. Vincent Dolphin Gallery Dolphin Dome Underwater Viewing
Dolphin Pavilion at the Indianapolis Zoo before entering the submerged tunnel system

On this trip, we stopped to listen to the dolphin trainers explain the negative impacts of dolphins entangled in fishing nets, lines, or ropes. Unfortunately, many perish in the process.

This conversation inspired me for what this weekly post should be about because one of my favorite units to cover in the classroom is student investigation and problem-solving of bycatch. Bycatch is when an aquatic species (e.g., fish, shark/ray, whale, dolphin, porpoise, sea turtle, or sea bird) is unintentionally caught in a trap intended to collect a different aquatic species. Arguably one of the best-known examples was during the 1970s, when thousands of dolphins died in the Pacific because of commercial tuna fishing operations.

The bycatch of aquatic animals continues to be a significant problem with global implications.

Sea turtle caught in a net
Sea turtle caught in net

The U.S. National Bycatch Report, written in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Marine Fisheries Service, share:

“Impacts from bycatch and bycatch mortality vary across fisheries and may have adverse biological, economic, and social consequences. Bycatch of fish can contribute to overfishing and impede efforts to rebuild fish stocks, or have negative economic and social impacts to fishermen and communities that rely on the economic benefits from a fishery or fish for food. By altering the availability of predators and prey, bycatch can affect marine ecosystems and fishery productivity. Bycatch of marine mammals and species listed under the Endangered Species Act can contribute to population declines and impede population recovery. Bycatch of habitat-forming benthic species like corals and sponges can damage important habitats for fish and other species”(p. v, 2019).

Check out this student-friendly Crash Course video that explains bycatch.

It is challenging to know the true value of how much bycatch occurs, but some estimations are as follows:

Whatever the true value is, it is evident that bycatch is a significant global problem that needs problem solvers at the helm.

Students are the Next Generation of Problem Solvers

A few solutions are in the works to reduce bycatch, such as fishery observation programs to document bycatch of protected species, advocacy for fishing regulations, and guidelines for fishing operators on the safe handling of non-target animals when they are caught.

Another significant push is for the use of alternative selective fishing gear. For example, can we find an alternative solution for catching fish without using bottom trawling gear?

Understanding bycatch, and ideating solutions to alleviate bycatch in commercial fishing, can be an excellent STEM activity for students. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has a great series of videos showing the problem and potential solutions.

Bycatch Activities

Activity 1

All Caught Up: Bycatch and Design at

This is an activity for Grades 4-7. The lesson navigates through an Introduction with informative illustrations of nets, a vocabulary list, and assessments. There are some excellent prompts within the activity that can lead to rich conversations with students.

Activity 2

What’s the By-Catch by EarthEcho International

This activity is designed for middle schoolers, with students practicing data collection and percent proportions. However, educators can easily construct the activity into an elementary school activity. The lesson plan has a number of videos and resources.

Activity 3

Bycatch Design Challenge by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

This is a K-12 activity (I think it looks more appropriate for middle school). The link provides a slide deck presentation, videos, worksheets, and additional extension activities that integrate STEM with language arts and social studies.

Activity 4

In my classroom, I anchor the lesson in the Design Thinking Model and request students to build a prototype of a new fishing gear apparatus that distinguishes a target species from a non-target species. They test the prototype in a kiddie pool of water with balls of different densities. A fish pump creates currents through the water, so the balls flow around instead of being stagnant. Students use their prototypes to trap one type of ball while not trapping the other types of balls. I provide students with a hodgepodge of raw materials to construct the prototype.

How to make the Activity Eco-Friendly

As you may have seen from some of the activities above, or other bycatch lessons you may have located, many of the supplies use single-use plastic items to build a new prototype. We can avoid this with some of the more eco-friendly items that are available! The list below has some of my favorite alternative materials.

Recommendation 1

Bamboo Cutlery- Bamboodlers Disposable Wooden Cutlery are bamboo-based utensils that can serve as structural components of the prototype. The fork, spoon, and knife surfaces can create a plethora of solutions to trap the target species instead of non-target species. For example, the fork is more of a "comb" action, while the spoon is more of a "scoop" action. Since Bamboodles are bamboo, students must also think about the floating nature of bamboo (which is tricky for effective underwater fishing gear!)

Vegetable-based Straws- The Veggie Straws are made from banana and agave fibers in Ecuador. The straws resemble plastic in look and feel but are 100% biodegradable and eco-friendly. The straws maintain their integrity in water temperatures in the range of min. 32 F / 0 C, max. 302 F / 150 C. Hence, they are great for this activity if it involves water!

Jute netting- instead of nylon netting or other plastic nettings, I recommend using a Jutemill jute burlap. Jute burlap is made from the natural fibers of the jute plant and has a minimal carbon footprint. Since the jute plant reaches maturity in 4 to 6 months, this is a renewable material.

Silicone Baking Cups- Amazon Silicone Baking Cups, while not biodegradable, these items can be used again and again and again for these projects! The different shapes available in this bundle have utility when thinking of the different characteristics of target vs. non-target species.

Bycatching is a wonderful engineering design challenge because it integrates a real-world biological, environmental, ecological, economic, and social problem for which students can provide solutions!

Extending the Design Challenge

  • Invite a community partner! Is there an engineering firm near you? A local airport? A parent with a drone? Get them involved!

  • Ask students to document their processes and present their final prototypes

Once your students make their prototypes, we would love for you to share them with us at Letters to Ben or share with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Disclaimer: It is strongly advised that all STEM experiments be attempted only under adult supervision. Do not ingest any of the materials during or after performing this challenge. Safety goggles and gloves are highly recommended.

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