Olympic College student's eco-friendly buoy system wins environmental award
Olympic College student Dylan Diefendorf led a team to victory at the University of Washington’s Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge for a more environmentally friendly crab-pot and buoy system, which could save the lives of many whales.
Puget Buoy won a prize of $15,000 for the university-level competition, which was held over Zoom this year. The competition just completed its 13th year, said Lauren Brohawn, assistant director for the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge.
Each year, teams are challenged with identifying an environmental problem and proposing an innovative solution. About 21 teams and over 100 judges participate in the competition. The competition aims to build awareness in students in the region that resources exist for them to help them take on projects that strengthen the Northwest's environmental ecosystem, Brohawn said.
Diefendorf, 23, studies mechanical engineering and has always had an interest in environmental issues. Brohawn said he took feedback well and gathered a good team with different skill sets, which helped lead them to success.
He found out about the challenge through an information event hosted by the University of Washington in 2019. There, he listened to guest speakers talk?about projects for the upcoming competition and?address?problems that face the “blue economy.” Representatives from NOAA explained issues involving maritime sustainable energy and practices and current solutions being explored.?
“The whale entanglement issue definitely caught my eye because I've always tried to minimize my individual impact in terms of waste, and I grew up near the beach,"?he said.?"I've been on the ocean for a large portion of my life.”
Diefendorf was on the sailing team in high school and said he has a great appreciation for the ocean.
The process to creating a better buoy
During the information event, Diefendorf began jotting down notes, visualizing a better solution for crabbing buoys that often entangle whales and other sea creatures.
He was interested in the idea of pop-up gear, which is?essentially a crabbing buoy?that will deploy from the crab pots at certain times, lessening the impact that the vertical ropes have by entangling animals like whales.?
“It can become like a forest with these ropes, and whales just get entangled with them and get wrapped up and they eventually die because of exhaustion and because of all this weight that they're dragging behind them,” Diefendorf said.?
With Puget Buoy’s gear, the device keeps the rope on the seafloor. When the fisherman returns to the pot, the buoy then returns to the surface to be pulled out.
“Marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and even sea turtles can pass freely without having to worry about getting tangled in the ropes,” Diefendorf said.
“The sustainability aspect and having a competition where you develop solutions to improve the health and sustainability of the environment is definitely something that I really resonate with in terms of building a better future.”
He said there’s a lot of opportunity in the challenges that face the climate and oceans, and he wanted to be a part of finding solutions.?
Diefendorf found most of his team at the information events. People who had ideas at the event could present to the group of people, and those interested could reach out.?
The team is putting most of its $15,000 prize money back into Puget Buoy to be used to further the project. Brohawn said a goal of the Alaska Airlines Environmental Challenge is to see teams move forward into a successful start-up.
The team is partnering with organizations like tribal fisheries and the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife to test the gear. Soon, Puget Buoy will be doing a season-long test of the pop-up equipment to gather comprehensive data. Many people are interested to see if this technology is a viable solution, Diefendorf said
“We feel very confident that we will be able to provide satisfactory results from this pilot project,” he said. The team plans to present the results?to NOAA and WDFW, as well as recommend policy changes.
“That's kind of the ultimate goal of this, is to be able to show that this might be a better alternative solution,” Diefendorf said.?
He said the team is able to show that the Puget Buoy can reduce whale entanglements up to 88% from a normal crab-pot buoy. He says this would significantly help the whale population.?
Making a solution accessible
Another benefit of the Puget Buoy is a reduction of lost fishing gear.?
“Half a million crab pots are used each season and about 10% of those, so 50,000 of them, are lost to the ocean,” Diefendorf said. “We hope that if this was used on a full scale on the West Coast, we'd be able to prevent 40,000 of those pots from being lost. That would have significant positive impacts on improving the health and sustainability of the fisheries.”
The Puget Buoy runs at about $250 per unit, and Diefendorf wants to make them as economical as possible?as well as competitive in operating reliability, speed?and other important aspects for fishermen working to get their target catch.?
“The solution is only as good as its ability to be used by everyone not just by you, so we really do want to make this a competitive alternative to transition to.”?
There are discussions around pop-up gear like Puget Buoy being able to be used in places currently unavailable to crabbing, because of its eco-safety. This potential option, and less gear being lost with this technology, would allow crabbers to easily make back their initial investment, Diefendorf said.?
Puget Buoy isn’t stopping anytime soon. Diefendorf describes the project as a painting that’s never finished —?there’s always room for improvement. There have been a few iterations of the gear already, but in the coming months, the team will be reviewing its current prototype and finding possible improvements.?
Diefendorf and the Puget Buoy team are participating in the Washington Maritime Blue Innovator Accelerator, run by the Seattle nonprofit Maritime Blue. This accelerator is meant to provide guidance and opportunities to innovators addressing challenges in the maritime economy in the Pacific Northwest?and grow their business. Over 150 companies applied, said Josh Carter, program director for the accelerator, but only 11 were chosen to participate. On May 18, the teams will get to showcase what they learned in the program.
“I think it's just a remarkable idea,” Carter said of Puget Buoy. “The fact they’ve been able to take something in an industry that’s admittedly aging, and find a new way of capturing what we all really want, a great commodity, but do it in a different way that’s safer for the environment. And it seems to be economical, or if not even more economical.”
Puget Buoy already has prototypes, which was also enticing when selecting the team for the program.
“We definitely see this as a real, very strong chance, a really great opportunity to make a difference in the blue economy and the health of the environment and the oceans,” Diefendorf said.