Gordon Feller / Alternatives Magazine 2020 / Issue 192

According to the World Bank FAO/United Nations, the world’s demand for fish is growing and current fishing practices are unsustainable in the long term. Globally, as of 2013, fish represent about 17% of animal protein supply and 7% of all protein for human consumption. Although fish farming (aquaculture) is the fastest growing sector in seafood harvesting, it will not be ableto feed over six billion people solely on its own. The quest for natural, wild capture seafood will always be in great demand due to its high quality for those seeking seafood proteins. The health of our oceans is even more important as the demand for fish continues to rise at a rate of two times the world’s population since 1961. With Earth’s population expected to grow to ten billion by 2050, rises in global fish demand are expected to continue, reaching 230 million tons at that same date, resulting in degradation of fish stocks worldwide. The problems are being worsened by antiquated technologies and difficult to manage supply chain fragmentation.

A major problem leading to overfishing is bycatch. According to NOAA, (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), bycatch is a complex, global issue that threatens the sustainability and resiliency of our fishing communities, economies, and ocean ecosystems. NOAA defines bycatch as discarded animals that fishermen unintentionally catch but do not want, cannot sell, or are not allowed to keep. These inadvertently caught animals die after suffering injuries caused by nets and rapid ascent to the surface. Bycatch poses a significant threat to the world’s oceans. According to Oceana, “as of 2015, approximately one in five fish caught by commercial fishermen in the US are bycatch, which equates to two billion pounds of fish and other marine species wasted each year. Overfishing is a serious threat to the world’s oceans due to the quantity of commercial fisheries and the volume of bycatch.”

Bycatch not only damages the environment through overfishing, but it can also kill the fisherman’s bottom line or even bankrupt the boat. Undesired catches eat into valuable revenues necessary to offset the substantial costs of manning and operating a commercial fishing vessel.

The most commonly used metric to estimate sustainability of a particular fishery, as well as the efficiency of fishing techniques, is Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE). CPUE is an indirect metric that roughly estimates the abundance of a particular species. In other words, if a large amount of effort (time, equipment) goes into catching a small amount of fish, then either the species is not abundant, or the fishing technique is not inefficient. Likewise, if a small amount of effort goes into catching a large amount of fish, then the species can be considered abundant or the fishing technique very efficient. A decreasing CPUE is a sign of overfishing and lack of abundance. An increasing CPUE is a sign of sustainable fishing and species health. It should be noted that the fish caught must be the species targeted by the fisherman i.e. bycatch is not counted.

For the trawl net fishermen, it is all about knowing what is in their net. The problem is that fishing is inherently a blind endeavour, so the fishermen never know with certainty what they have caught until they dump it out on deck and see it for themselves. But by then, it is already too late to do anything about the bycatch. The fish will already be dead and with an inspector on board, any mistake is going to cost that fishermen money. It is also too late during the tow if he overfills his net, catches a large crab pot, trees, boulders, a tractor trailer, large mammals or anything else that is going to block or damage their net and waste the efforts of their work. To succeed, the fisherman needs to have more precise harvesting tools and technologies at his disposal, the fishermen need to have eyes inside their nets.

SmartCatch Inc., is a Silicon Valley technology company that is focused on addressing issues related to commercial fishing inefficiencies and bycatch problems. The company is driven to address the estimated $80 billion in annual economic losses to the seafood industry because of lack of discrimination at harvest and huge wastes in the seafood supply chain.

To help fishermen fish with greater precision SmartCatch has developed DigiCatch, a real-time smart camera for trawl net fishing. DigiCatch is a catch monitoring system comprised of a remote-controlled HD camera, dimmable lighting, sensor platform, as well as an embedded high-speed computer. It is a solid step forward in addressing the bycatch problem by giving fishermen immediate feedback as to what is happening in their net. DigiCatch is 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 2500 meters of traditional ‘3rd wire plastic’ jacket stainless steel coax cable.

Fishermen typically perform a test tow to determine if there is any ‘out of season’ or illegal fish that are being caught along with their target species. If the mix is not favorable, then the fisherman will move on to a different location. With real-time video, however, they can see their species composition in real-time allowing them to eliminate having to do test tows. Real-time video is fundamentally different than sonar because of sonars inherent delays.

With real-time video, captains know definitively when they are harvesting bycatch, and this allowsthem to improve their catch by making on-the-fly adjustments and seeing the immediate results. After years of beta testing on the US West Coast and Alaska, DigiCatch is finding its footing in thetrawl fisheries. Several of these smart camera systems have been deployed in the ground-fish and mid-ocean pelagic fisheries. SmartCatch’s smart cameras have been installed on fishing boats owned by the largest fishing companies in the United States, as well as on boats run by independent captains. The reception to the technology has been welcoming, and the word-of-mouth around the benefits of the system continues to grow.“With DigiCatch, I know exactly what I’m catching when I’m catchingit,” notes Captain Ed French of the fishing vessel, Gladiator. Captain TJ Durnan, of the fishing catcher/processor Constellation, has observed 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,” Captain Durnan says.

Additionally, SmartCatch is developing DigiLog, a digital logbook companion to their smart camera product. The digital logbook is an easy way for fishermen to collect large amounts of relevant fishing-related data. The smart camera can automatically make entries into the digital logbook. For example; the start and end points of a tow as well as the boats tow path, as well as the average gear and sea floor depth. The tow information is all tied together with time-stamped sensor logs and video recordings. Intuitive drop-down menus make it straightforward to document the species composition and biomass weight of the harvest. The digital logbook can also help generate Landing Reports and Fish Tickets meeting state and federal compliance requirements. Collected data can also be used by fisherman to show proof of positive, sustainable improvements within the fishery.

DigiLog reduces the time to fill out and generate reports while increasing their accuracy. The digital format makes the data immediately accessible for forecasting, planning, and improving the fisherman’s overall fishing practices. All data recorded by DigiCatch is ownedby the fishermen and can be uploadedto the cloud and could have multiple applications.

SmartCatch systems are providing an important breakthrough in improving CPUE for fishing operations and providing authenticated digital information at the point of harvest. Better data and analytics promote clear tracking, labeling, and help to support sustainable fishing and improving ocean health.

The fish processing industry also sees the advantages that data can yield. According to Jeff Davis, a senior managing partner at International Seafood Partners and an investor in several seafood harvesting companies says, “We see the commercial potential of bringing a digital transformation to the entire food value chain of seafood.”

For more than 35 years, Gordon Feller has been writing about the role of technology in protecting the natural environment. Gordon Feller is a board member at the non-profit Alliance for Innovation. He serves as a Global Fellow at The Smithsonian Institution. Gordon has received numerous awards, including The Prime Minister Abe Journalism Fellowship in Japan. He founded Meeting of the Minds (MeetingoftheMinds.org), the international non-profit sponsored by Microsoft and dozens of other major organizations focused on sustainability. His articles have been published in more than 400 periodicals and newspapers, including TIME, FORTUNE, World Economic Forum, U.N., M.I.T., World Bank, Grist. He began to address the oceans challenge in 1975 at UN headquarters in NYC.