Flywire taking a fresh approach to onboard monitoring

Published on
June 27, 2019

On-board cameras have rarely been seen as a net benefit by fishermen, either in the United States or abroad.

Often mandated by government regulation, and used to enforce laws sometimes perceived as arbitrary, fishermen have resisted the adoption of on-board video technology even as the technology itself has gotten smaller in size and more affordable in cost.

Jacob Isaac-Lowry and Sarah Alessi, the co-founders of Flywire Cameras, want to reverse traditional thinking about on-board cameras. They see video recording of fishing techniques and catches as a valuable data-collection tool that can be used to maximize fishing effort and profit, in addition to providing guarantees on traceability and legal compliance.

“The U.S. government has been pushing hard to get fishermen to adopt electronic monitoring tools, but fishermen themselves have very little control over the process. They don’t touch the technology, they don’t see how it’s used, and they don’t get to participate in using the data. Really, their only interaction with it is when they get hit with a citation, or when their fishery gets impacted. They feel locked out of process,” Isaac-Lowry told SeafoodSource. “Our approach is to turn cameras into a value-added benefit instead of a regulatory stick. Our focus is on fishers and their benefit. Our platform can be used to increase efficiency and eliminate waste, enabling smarter fishing, and ultimately increased margins.”

Founded in 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.A., around intellectual property pertaining to the miniaturization of camera systems, the company originally had designs to work with four disparate industries: wearables for surgeons, law enforcement, team sports, and fisheries. Ultimately, following the company’s participation in The Nature Conservancy’s Sustainability Accelerator program last year, Isaac-Lowry and Alessi decided to pivot the company to focus on fisheries exclusively.

In partnership with seed accelerator TechStars, The Nature Conservancy’s mentorship-driven accelerator annually chooses 10 businesses for its annual program, which connects entrepreneurs with conservationists, corporate partners, and investors “to deliver products that can put the world on a path to sustainability.”

“There’s not nearly enough technological innovation taking place in the sustainability sphere,” program director August Ritter said. “There’s so much new technology out there, with so much potential for disruption and improvement, but we’re not seeing enough disruption in the things we care about. The program exists to catalyze this innovation.”

With a team of six and just over USD 1 million (EUR 880,000) in revenue to date, Flywire was at the perfect size to take the lessons learned from the program and focus their business on where they saw their best opportunity for making the most impact, Alessi said. And from her previous role working for NOAA, Alessi knew firsthand both the challenges and opportunities provided by on-board camera technology, and felt like she had the adequate perspective to take an approach that might be positively received by fishermen.

“At NOAA, I saw some fishermen who didn’t really have perspective on what NOAA was dealing with on the ground. But I also saw where a lot of disconnect and conflict had come between government regulators and the industry,” Alessi said. “I saw our company as a way to bridge that divide. Checking the regulatory boxes is a part of what we do, but only a part. For us, like the fishermen, we’re coming at this problem from a business perspective. At the end of the day, we’re all running businesses to put food on the table for our families.”

With the on-board cameras and proprietary software that include the use of artificial intelligence algorithms, Flywire is able to compile detailed, customized analytical reports for clients that give them actionable ways to improve where and how they fish, how they handle their catch, and their regulatory compliance. The company’s software can provide haul-by-haul updates verifying whether a catch meets specifications, such as endangered, threatened, and protected species thresholds or bycatch limits. Flywire can also produce reports for its clients’ customers, offering evidence of compliance with specific preferences set by the buyer.

“We identify trends in the ways you fish to maximize the value of your catch at the dock, every time,” Isaac-Lowry said. “Additionally, if a customer has a certain buying preference or stipulation, you can offer assurances your fish is caught the way the way they want it caught, which can mean more dollars in your pocket as a fishermen, as consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for sustainable and responsibly-sourced product.”

The annual cost to comply with NOAA’s e-monitoring requirements can cost USD 10,000 to USD 12,000 (EUR 8,800 to EUR 10,600) per year for many vessels, according to Isaac-Lowry. Using that money to move beyond compliance and into value extraction can benefit most companies, he said.

“The goal is to drive more value without adding more cost and complexity. But we don’t want to be arbiters in the process, or be in charge of making decisions for you. We just provide the information you need to make better business decisions,” he said. “Where we’ve found our sweet spot is not as verifier of bad actors, but as a tool for people fishing the right way who can now be directly connected to the benefits of fishing that way.”

But as promising as the Flywire co-owners see their services being for the industry, they also know they’re not for everyone.

“The industry – for very good reasons – is wary of outsiders saying we’ve got another thing you can pay for and put on your boat and it will record you,” Alessi said. “So we’re not just going into any fishery advocating for more cameras everywhere. We’re only interested in talking to those in need of our services; who understand we can help drive more value to their business by using our technology and services.”

As a way to bridge the trust gap among fishermen wary of “another person saying they can pay for cameras to take up space on your boat so it can record you,” Alessi said the company stresses the privacy of its clients’ data. Alessi said fishermen are understandably wary about how their data is shared, as they don’t want to give up trade secrets such as where they fish or the gear they use in certain season. In response, Flywire keeps all their clients’ data strictly confidential.

So far, Flywire has worked with vessels in the U.S., a fleet of 200 gillnet boats in Mexico, and a few vessels in South America. But Isaac-Lowry said the company is ready and willing to work worldwide – a trait he said is important, given the global nature of seafood supply chains.

For both Isaac-Lowry and Alessi, Flywire’s mission is as much about creating positive change in the industry and for the environment as it is about bottom-line profits.

“We really believe only way create meaningful, impactful change is by focusing on the front lines – on the men and women out on the water every day out trying to make a living. We’re not a company coming in, extracting money to provide a service. We’re hiring local technicians and video reviewers that know the fish and the vessels better than anyone else. We want to help fishing communities take back control of their fisheries for themselves,” Isaac-Lowry said. “Ultimately, we want to build a more sustainable economic future for these coastal communities. Most people fishing nowadays know the industry needs to change. Now we have new tools, and those give us better choices and more opportunity.”

Photo courtesy of Flywire

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