The rise of seatech — a new world wide web

Wave of Binary
ShutterstockBruce Rolff / Login

Someday we’ll have an Internet of Fish. Underwater sensors, robots and cameras will reveal sea creatures to catch and avoid, changing ocean conditions and goings-on in farmed fish pens — all at the tap of an app. Someday we won’t stare at the seafood counter wondering if a "halibut" is really a halibut and where it came from. Someday methane-eating bacteria will clean the atmosphere and produce fish feed ingredients in the process.

That day is on the horizon — and you don’t even have to squint.

The information technology and biotech revolutions were slow to reach the over $390 billion global seafood industry, but now they are surging in to join an upwelling of technological innovation within the industry, from land-based fish farming to deep-sea fishing. Seatech, with its potential to address urgent needs such as climate change adaptation, supply chain transparency and sustainable fishing and aquaculture, promises to be at least as big an opportunity as the agtech wave that preceded it.

The Internet of Fish comes together

It’s been clear for a while that an Internet of Fish could bring all kinds of benefits, including better fisheries management, more productive and lower-waste fishing and traceable fish consumers can feel good about. But only recently has connecting all the elements of seafood’s supply chain — under the water, on the water and on shore — emerged as a realistic goal. Just 10 years ago, underwater cameras were super expensive, and refining other electronics for underwater operation wasn’t a priority. Now rafts of submersible robots, cameras and sensors are sending critical data to phones and computers on boats and on land, allowing real-time decision making.

The robots patrol open-ocean fish farms (PDF), recording the health, size and feeding habits of fish within the net pens, along with environmental conditions. They can even fix frayed nets and remove waste. Cameras in net pens and onshore aquaculture tanks keep an electronic eye out for potential problems so farmers can take preventive steps, while cameras on fishing gear let fishers see what’s in the water before they drop their nets. That helps them avoid bycatch and keep fisheries open.

Tools that gather big data from wide swaths of the ocean can make targeted fishing even more effective. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s EcoCast tool, for example, draws on-location reports and satellite measurements of ocean conditions to show West Coast fishers where they are most likely to find swordfish and least likely to snag turtles and other threatened species. The key is making the data available in real time so that fishing boats can use it on the water.

Fish farmers are also benefiting from new data-sharing tools. NOAA’s National AquaMapper collects over 100 aquaculture-relevant geospatial data types in a web-based tool for exploring, siting and permitting offshore aquaculture operations. The tool can spare farmers months of back-and-forth paperwork with multiple agencies.

Putting the ‘see’ in seafood’s supply chain

Storied seafood has been on the industry’s menu for some time. Forward thinkers realize people who care about how their coffee got to their cup also want to know how their seafood ended up on their plate. Consumer-facing companies that work directly with fishers and farmers already can tell that story, but they’re a tiny portion of the market. For the industry at large, seeing through seafood’s more typically long, murky supply chains has been a challenge.

A whole suite of traceability and transparency technologies (PDF) is poised to change that. Companies developing these tools are small-scale at this point, but the sheer number and diversity of technologies popping up shows it is possible for seafood buyers to track where a fish was caught, the dock it was hauled up on, the temperature it’s been kept at and other meaningful data. ThisFish (a former Fish 2.0 finalist), for example, traces seafood on its journey from water to table using software that lets each handler in the chain upload information on each coded fish. The system operates in Canada’s east and west coast fisheries.

Portugal-based Bitcliq (another Fish 2.0 alumnus) is using a blockchain platform to trace fish from catch to dock. It’s also connecting fishing fleets with retail buyers, enabling on-the-spot purchases. Blockchain proponents think the shared digital ledger, which shows a cryptographically protected, time-stamped history of data uploads and transactions, has the potential to transform seafood supply chains worldwide. In addition to providing traceability, blockchain technology could make seafood trade financing viable: With reliable supply chain information and a range of blockchain solutions available, financial institutions could build better predictive models and develop finance and insurance products matched to the seafood industry’s real risks and needs.

Hooking up automated data capture solutions incorporated in packaging to Internet of Fish data coming from the water will be central to advancing blockchain adoption and other traceability solutions. Data capture by sensors, robots, computer vision and IoT systems overrides the problem of human error (or intentional fraud) in supply chain reporting, and expands the types of data available. In the aquaculture industry, big companies such as Amazon and Cargill are already starting to digitalize the salmon feed supply chain to trace feed sources.

The convergence of traceability and transparency technologies will open a path to real progress on issues such as mislabeling, illegal fishing and labor violations by revealing a full picture of seafood’s fragmented supply chain. The links — small fishing boats and farms, an array of middlemen, international retailers — still will be there, but they’ll be easy to find and connect. As with the web after Google, suddenly we’ll have everything at our fingertips.

Let them eat flies — and bacterial proteins and algae

Better fisheries management and supply chain transparency can only do so much. Aquaculture could relieve the pressure on wild fish stocks while providing good, clean protein to a world increasingly hungry for it — but only if we stop feeding farmed fish with wild forage fish. Advances in biotech could provide the answer here.

Biotech startups focused on algae, bacteria-powered waste solutions and insect proteins target the fish feed market (PDF) because it’s where low-volume production of new nutrients has the highest payoff and market demand. Oil from microalgae is an excellent, scalable fish oil alternative that delivers better animal health and growth rates than vegetable feeds, as well as better tasting, more nutritious fish.

And companies that feed methane, carbon and other industrial byproducts to bacteria in fermentation tanks are pulling out high-quality proteins that rival those in the best fish meals. Black soldier flies and other fast-growing insects that eat food waste also could be an excellent protein source for fish feeds.

Collaboration, not competition, is powering seatech’s rise

Big picture: All these technologies are potentially game-changing innovations for oceans and the seafood sector. But counter to the narrative of cutthroat competition that clings to tech generally, seatech likely will succeed only through combination and collaboration. The market is huge and these are not standalone solutions — they’re specialized pieces of a vast global whole where solutions were needed yesterday.

Growing companies are changing their priorities in recognition of this fact. More than half the companies coming into the Fish 2.0 network seek partnerships alongside investment. We started Fish 2.0 as a competition, but we’ve seen that growth in the sector depends on collaboration. Seatech’s success will lie in solving this equation: the right product plus the right business model plus the right partnerships. The result will be strong returns plus deep positive impact — and that’s a someday we can truly look forward to.

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