Op-ed: Can “precision fishing” save our ocean fisheries?


Gordon Feller

Published on
October 5, 2020

Gordon Feller is a board member at the Alliance for Innovation and a Global Fellow at The Smithsonian Institution. For more than 35 years, Feller has been writing about the role of technology in protecting natural environment. He has received numerous awards, including The Prime Minister Abe Journalism Fellowship in Japan.

According to the World Bank and FAO/United Nations, the world’s demand for fish is growing and current fishing practices are unsustainable in the long term. Globally, fish represent about 17 percent of animal protein supply and 7 percent of all protein for human consumption.  Although aquaculture solutions are being explored, it would still be difficult to feed over six billion people solely using farmed fish. 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.

In the past, wild capture fisheries have been the primary source of fish protein. However, a large percentage of these resources have already been pushed beyond their breaking points. Climate change and overfishing are having a substantial effect on fish populations, which will make demand impossible to meet and will continue to lead to rapid degradation of fish stocks globally. The exploitation of fisheries due to increased population growth and demand has led to massive overfishing, resulting in a rapid degradation of fish stocks worldwide. This problem has been exacerbated by antiquated technology, supply chain fragmentation, and seafood waste that make it difficult to manage.

A major problem leading to overfishing is by-catch. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the scientific arm of the US government that studies the skies and oceans, defines by-catch as “discarded catch of marine species and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing vessels and gear.” These unintentionally caught animals often cannot be returned to the water after suffering injuries caused by nets and eventually die. By-catch is a major contributor to overfishing and poses a significant threat to the world’s oceans.

“As of 2015, approximately one in five fish caught by commercial fishermen in the US are by-catch, 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.”

The commercial fishing industry is ripe for a digital transformation – and needs better tools for precision fishing. Although fish farming (aquaculture) is the fastest growing sector in seafood harvesting, the quest for natural, wild capture seafood will always be in high demand due high quality and health conscience tendencies of those seeking seafood protein. 

SmartCatch is a Silicon Valley start-up company which has spent years developing DigiCatch. This is a real-time HD video, lighting, and computerized sensor system that gives captains immediate, granular feedback on what is happening in their net, along with data from other oceanographic sensors.

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 layman’s terms, 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 extremely 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.

The CPUE metric is notably vague and indirect, and yet, is the most commonly used metric across the fishing industry due to its ease of calculation and the inaccessibility of more specific metrics and measurement techniques. As technology improves and fishermen adopt solutions that allow for more efficient tracking, CPUE may be deprecated in favor of more nuanced metrics. For now, it’s the easiest way to recognize improvement.

SmartCatch aims to address overfishing and depleting fish supplies. For the initial phase, the company is focusing on improving analytics in the large-scale fishing industry. This is a strong first step considering the team’s backgrounds, knowledge, and connections to industrial fishing companies. SmartCatch is offering real-time analytics and an integrated ERP internet of things solution for fisheries to improve data management. In line with our investment thesis, better data and analytics are required in order to create a sustainable fishing industry and improve ocean health.

There are a ton of advantages to all this, but one of the first, according to CEO and SmartCatch co-founder Mark Dahm, is fishermen’s bottom line. “The captains love it. Digital Video is better than sonar because there are inherent delays with analogue sensors. With digital, it’s real-time and they can make the adjustments to improve their catch per unit effort efficiency,” Dahm says. He co-founded the company along with the company’s Chief Technology Officer, Rob Terry.

SmartCatch’s product road-map leverages big data, artificial intelligence, digital video, deep analytics, and cloud computing in order to reduce waste and help the seafood industry feed more people sustainably.

The point-of-catch video enables reliable speciation and allows for shorter test tows (a test sample of what the nets are capturing), letting captains know definitively when they are scooping up by-catch and allowing them to make adjustments, on the fly. For example, if a test tow produces a ratio of too many “choke species” as opposed to the target species, the fisherman concludes he can fish in this location or he should not. After years of beta testing on the West Coast and Alaska, Dahm says that DigiCatch is finding its footing in the trawl fisheries. Several of the complex systems have been deployed in groundfish fisheries and mid-ocean pelagic fisheries, like pollock. And there’s the rich trove of data registered by DigiCatch, all of which is owned by the fishermen and can be uploaded to the cloud and could have multiple uses.

“The biomass of protein itself has the greatest value, of course, but we believe that as we add more data elements about the catch and the environmental conditions, that creates additional value that can be carried forward to the processor and even to buyers who want to get a forward view on what’s being captured,” SmartCatch CTO and Founder Terry Dahm said.

Dahm said that they’ve spoken with major processors who’ve indicated that they want to use the technology to get quick, reliable information from the fleet to optimize their equipment for grading, cutting, heading and filleting.

“It provides a better forecast for processors on the catch-rate, size, weight, and potentially of the grade of the fish,” he said.

 Terry said the data could also be used by fisherman for compliance proof as well as demonstrating positive fisheries improvement.

Not only does this solution help fishermen be more efficient, it will also help them to comply with increasingly stringent regulations around fishing. As sustainable seafood advocates are pushing for clearer consumer protections similar to certified organic or GMO free labeling, fishermen will need to be accountable for their stock. SmartCatch will enable clear tracking and labeling and will aim to be the market leader for data solutions in the industry.

One of the advocates for a new approach is Jeffrey W. Davis, the Senior Managing Partner & Founder of ISEA Partners. He has been working in the commercial seafood industry since 1971, and is involved in all aspects of technology innovation on the supply side (fishing operations), processing sector, chain of custody and the demand side (wholesale/retail) of seafood. He is an Adviser to the Baader Group, and over a year ago was introduced to SmartCatch at the National Fisheries Institute annual summit. After meeting with Dahm, Davis says

“It became clear that SmartCatch and the DigiCatch System are on the leading edge of innovation on the supply side of commercial fishing,” Davis said. “Not only was I impressed with the technological design and implementation of the DigiCatch System as an efficiency tool for the most prominent fishing fleets in North America, but able to immediately recognize the commercial potential to bring a digital transformation to the entire food value chain of seafood.” 

Data at the “point of harvest” is of paramount when “establishing the provenance, traceability, biosecurity and economic incentive in the handling of seafood. This team’s ability to execute on innovation, go-to-market experience and commercial fishery knowledge prompted the Baader Group to place a minor investment in bringing this solution to commercialization for the processing sector.”

Davis thinks that finfish fisheries must “digitize” the compliance management process and bring authenticated data from the point of harvest. The new system provides an important breakthrough because it improves the CPUE of the fishing operation and establish authenticated digital logging method of the seafood. 

Photo courtesy of Gordon Feller

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500