SmartCatch deploys digital technology to help make the world’s commercial ﬁshing industry more sustainable.
BY GORDON FELLER
The human craving for fish is growing, but current fishing practices are unsustainable in the long run. Globally, ﬁsh represent about 17 percent of the animal protein supply and 7 percent of all protein for human consumption. The demand for ﬁsh continues to rise at a rate of two times the rate of human population growth since 1961. With Earth’s population expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050, the increase in ﬁsh demand is expected to continue, projected to reach 230 million tons that year. Although aquaculture output is increasing, feeding eight billion people using farmed ﬁsh alone is a challenge. Besides, industrial-scale ﬁsh farms present their own problems, from reducing species diversity to creating substantial waste products. Individual ﬁsh farms also can collapse from parasitic infestation and disease.
The most common metric used to estimate sustainability of a particular fishery and the efficiency of fishing techniques is catch per unit effort (CPUE), which estimates the abundance of a particular species. One of the main factors leading to overfishing is bycatch, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines as the “discarded catch of marine species and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing vessels and gear.” Often these animals cannot be returned to the water after suffering injuries caused by nets and eventually die. According to ocean conservation non-profit Oceana, as much as 40 percent of the world’s catch is bycatch, totaling 63 billion pounds of ﬁsh wasted each year.
Wild-capture fisheries have traditionally been humans’ primary source of ﬁsh protein. However, a large percentage of them have already been pushed beyond their breaking point. Without intervention, climate change and overfishing will make it impossible to meet consumer demand and lead to rapid degradation of ﬁsh stocks globally, which will also result in substantial economic damage to the ﬁshing industry. Bycatch damages the environment through overﬁshing and can sink the ﬁsherman’s bottom line. Under current US ﬁshing regulations, if a boat exceeds a certain amount of bycatch, it can be forced to return to harbor with no substantial revenues to oﬀset the substantial costs of manning and operating the vessel.
The commercial ﬁshing industry is ripe for a digital transformation—and needs better tools for precision ﬁshing. San Francisco Bay Area-based SmartCatch aims to address the bycatch problem and other ineﬃciencies in the seafood supply chain that cause an estimated $80 billion annually in economic losses to ﬁshing industries. Rob Terry, who formerly held technology and product leadership roles at Whole Foods, and at Xerox PARC and other Silicon Valley companies, founded the company in 2011. With family members in the ﬁshing industry, Terry was keenly aware of both the environmental and business problems resulting from overﬁshing and sought to establish a business that could create positive change at scale and a great yield for stakeholders.
“After years of working in information science and e-commerce, I wanted to do something which would make a positive impact on the world as well,” Terry says.
THE SMARTCATCH PLATFORM
Terry spent the early years developing the initial designs and intellectual property for SmartCatch’s hardware, software, and data platform, with the long-term goal of being the data and analytics leader for precision ﬁshing. The SmartCatch system is composed of three parts: DigiCatch (Smart Camera), SmartNet, and DigiLog/DataCloud.
DigiCatch is a real-time catch monitoring system made up of a remote-controlled HD camera, lighting, and a sensor platform. It captures data at the point of harvestthe net—by enabling ﬁshermen to monitor what gets caught. Designed to be deployed in trawl nets at depths of as much as 1,000 meters and to provide real-time data along as much as three kilometers of stainless-steel coax cable, the DigiCatch Internet of Things (IoT) system relies on sensory technology to gather, analyze, and store seafood data in order to reduce bycatch and improve yields for the entire supply chain.
SmartNet, which is designed but not yet implemented, plans to further reduce bycatch by using robotic appendages to allow fish that shouldn’t be in the net to escape. If the DigiCatch camera operator—later, the system’s AI—detects a high proportion of bycatch, it can divert the incoming school of fish to safety without having to pull up the net, saving both fish and money.
Unifying these systems and enabling other sustainability efforts is the DigiLog/ DataCloud application, which uses a patented blockchain system to authenticate data around each catch (collected by the DigiCatch sensor platform and analyzed by computer vision). It digitizes netted fish in a way that allows for better value for fishermen, better efficiency for processors, and more transparency for regulators, while providing critical information for fisheries management.
In 2016, Mark Dahm, who met Terry that year at the Marine Technical Society’s fall conference, joined SmartCatch as CEO and raised roughly $2 million to bring the DigiCatch device to market. Early backers included angel investors with a passion for sustainability and an interest in IoT and AI technologies, as well as industry players like the Baader Group, one of the world’s leading suppliers of processing equipment to the fishing industry. Investors saw the opportunity to participate in the digital transformation of a $500 billion industry, while at the same time helping the world’s food supply and ocean health.
“SmartCatch is developing products that are leading innovation for the commercial fishing industry,” says Baader board member representative Jeff Davis, who is also a senior managing partner at the seafood industry consultancy International Seafood Partners. “I am impressed with the opportunities that technology like SmartCatch is developing can bring to the harvesting industry.”
The first DigiCatch devices were tested in the fishing fleet in the Bering Sea. The results revealed the need for a much more rugged system and different communications methods for bringing video signal from the net. Another iteration of the device indicated the need for further enhancements based on deployments among the fishing fleet in the Pacific Northwest.
SmartCatch is currently working on its fourth iteration of its system, which will add multiple stereo cameras and a laser system that provides 3D imaging (LIDAR) in a much smaller and lighter form factor to pave the way for computer vision systems development.
Today, SmartCatch has its system deployed on fishing boats owned by the largest fishery companies in the United States, as well as on boats run by independent captains.
“With DigiCatch, I know exactly what I’m catching when I’m catching it,” says Captain Mike Rutherford, of the fishing vessel Excalibur. Captain TJ Durnan, of the fishing catcher/processor Constellation, says that real-time awareness of what’s going on in the net has allowed him to fish without bycatch in waters where less aware boats might run afoul of choke species. “With DigiCatch I can go fishing where no one else can go,” he says.
The fish processing industry also sees the advantages that data can yield. According to Davis, “We see the commercial potential of bringing a digital transformation to the entire food value chain of seafood.”
Future product launches from the company like SmartNet will help captains control harvests, allowing them to move to areas without significant bycatch and maintain their profitability while reducing overfishing. The company also has designs for cameras targeted at tropical shallow water fishing as well as systems for the crab and lobster fishermen.
In 2020, Terry’s team did the initial work on computer vision systems to estimate biomass and also developed the prototype for DigiLog, a digital logbook application that enhances data capturing and reduces inefficiencies between the fishing boat and
fish processors. It will also have a facility that automates landing reports for each boat harvest. The company is now starting on a new round of fundraising to accelerate the development of the AI systems, other software applications, and data management systems, as well as the continued technological advancement of the DigiCatch smart camera platform.
There are many problems yet to be solved in the realization of SmartCatch’s vision. The current version of the DigiCatch camera requires installation and deinstallation each instance the net is deployed, which takes time away from fishing. Images from the deep sea are often murky and light doesn’t travel far, which makes training AI models a challenge. Fish in a net can be tightly packed with many similar in shape and size, making species recognition challenging as well. The new version of the DigiCatch camera, with its smaller form factor, better lighting, and laser systems, will address these problems. The current system requires human monitoring of the video, which the AI in DigiLog will do for the captain. An additional challenge is that the company does not ultimately want to be in the manufacturing business, so it will need to work with partners to mass-produce its platform designs.
In addition to these product-related issues, there are societal challenges. Most fishing industries in the developing world don’t have the same regulatory requirements and incentives to invest in a more transparent supply chain. Furthermore, COVID-19 not only has affected some fishing boats but also has challenged fish processing plants, a number of which had to shut down, essentially putting the fishing boats out of work during fishing season.
“There are two million fishing boats in the world, and all of them are essentially fishing blind,” Terry says. “By making fishing more efficient, we hope to capture a fair share of the $80 billion of lost profits suffered by the industry and build a unicornscale business, all while ensuring the future of our ocean food supply.”
GORDON FELLER has worked in Silicon Valley for more than 35 years, focusing on the power of advanced technology innovations to solve complex societal and environmental challenges. His time as an executive at Cisco’s global headquarters was preceded by work with executive teams at IBM, HP, Lockheed, Apple, and others. He’s also consulted for the World Bank, the United Nations, and the governments of the United States, Canada, and Germany.