Nature and Biodiversity

High-tech for the high seas: How the digital wave can help sustainable fisheries

Sustainable fishing fish stocks technology innovation

Innovative solutions will use big data and blockchain within the industry. Image: Unsplash/ Juan Gomez

Myisha Majumder
Undergraduate student, Tufts University
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Restoring ocean life

  • More than 3 billion people rely on seafood to eat, and 60 million people rely on the seafood industry for their livelihood.
  • However, the rise in demand and unsustainable practices has led to a reduction in fish stocks.
  • Technology, including the use of data and blockchain, could help support these communities.

World fish consumption has almost doubled between the 1960s and now, and some estimates suggest fish contributes to at least 50 percent of total animal protein intake in developing nations. Despite higher demand for seafood and fish, world reserves have not kept up, and aquaculture is becoming more common as a result.

Aquaculture uses techniques of breeding marine species in all types of water environments as a means to supplement seafood demand. The practice comes with many advantages, including reducing the dependence on wild-caught species, but also raises environmental concerns, which some industry experts are trying to address with up-and-coming technologies such as analytics, blockchain, artificial intelligence and the internet of things.

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Jennifer Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said a focus on sustainability is necessary in the field, as 3 billion people rely on seafood, and 60 million people rely on the seafood industry for their livelihood. But this demand comes with noticeable problems, Kemmerly observed during a breakout session during VERGE 20 in late October.

"There's a lot of overfishing, or depleted fish stocks on the wild side of capture fisheries. There is illegality and mismanagement traceability back to the source of where the seafood is coming from, even whether it is farmed or wild... There are environmental issues and concerns that need to be dealt with," she said.

Kristina Furnes, global communications manager for Grieg Seafood, an international seafood company in Norway, British Columbia and Shetland specializing in fresh Atlantic salmon, said fish farming is complex. "It actually takes between 2.5 to three years to farm salmon, [which is] quite a long production period compared to, for example, chicken, which maybe takes like one or two months," she said. Part of this farming process occurs in freshwater facilities on land and the other part occurs at sea.

The process becomes even more complex with the introduction of sustainable practices, as fisheries strive to reduce impact on nature and improve fish welfare. "We have to cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, and we have to find new ways to think more in line with the circular economy," Furnes said.

Data and digital technologies can play a big role in helping out the process, said Furnes and her fellow VERGE 20 panelists. At Grieg Seafood, data analytics are being used to reduce the company’s feed conversion ratio, typically the amount of feed given over the amount of weight gained by the livestock, she said.

One operational center can support all the different farms in that region, and with them, decision-making support as we call it, so we don't think that digital tools will ever replace the fantastic guys on the farm.

Jennifer Kemmerly

Although technological advances can assist in making fishery practices more sustainable, Furnes emphasized the importance of long histories of fishing communities. She believes that well-established farmers who have "grown up with the ocean" have had the experience-based learning crucial for decision-making. Furnes does not see technology as a way to replace humans in the process, but rather to assist, through the creation of operational centers in the Grieg Seafood infrastructure.

"One operational center can support all the different farms in that region, and with them, decision-making support as we call it, so we don't think that digital tools will ever replace the fantastic guys on the farm. But the idea is that it will help them to make better decisions," she said.

The Ocean Restoring ocean life Beyond the ocean
More than 3 billion people rely on seafood to eat. Image: Green Facts

Among the sources of information Grieg uses to inform decisions include sensors and cameras to gather environmental data and monitor equipment on the farms.

Another area where data analytics can be used to help fisheries is through early detection of potential damages. Furnes offered the example of harmful algae blooms that can damage the salmon by decreasing levels of oxygen.

In Grieg Seafood’s British Columbia center, the company uses machine learning models to predict the probability of algae blooms. If the model warns of such an event, the company puts into place protective barriers through use of upwelling systems, which is simply taking water from further down in the ocean and increasing the overall height.

Blockchain also could play a role in supporting the sustainable evolution of aquaculture, said Espen Braathe, head of blockchain transparency efforts in Europe for IBM, who believes IBM’s preexisting blockchain network for the food market in Europe can be implemented in some way.

Braathe said data analytics about the condition of fish farms is appealing to consumers as well. "We expect information to be at our fingertips and we expect to have the truth about food… You want to feel good about you know the food that we eat, and we want to make sure it's healthy right for us as well," he said.

In Braathe’s opinion, consumers are looking for the connection that once ago existed between the consumer and the farmer. It is possible to recreate this relationship through digital connections, he said.

Although it is clear that usage of data can benefit the sustainability of fisheries, the industry will need to overcome certain barriers, according to the panelists. "The data is there, it resides in silos, but the quality of the data is not always to the point where you can actually use it [for analytics]," Braathe said.

Furnes echoed this statement, and said some sort of streamlining across the industry and within individual companies is necessary to efficiently use the large amounts of data gathered. "There is a need for a standard in the industry on how you actually collect data… Ensuring that you actually have quality data that you are collecting that you can actually use for something and compare is really big," she said.

Adopting such practices hopefully will come with time, as global consumption of seafood likely will continue to rise and have an impact on the surrounding climate and environment.

Kemmerly sees great potential in the role of technology in the solutions. "The challenges are not insurmountable. Technology has proven it can play a powerful role in enabling the sustainability and improved management of both fisheries and aquaculture," she said.

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