How advanced analytics can help restore the world’s fish supply

The global population has a big—and growing—appetite for seafood. Nearly one-fifth of all the animal protein that people eat consists of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, mostly from the oceans. Seafood consumption is predicted to increase by 20 percent from 2016 to 2030. That, in turn, puts pressure on the world’s fisheries.

Dishing up more seafood might satisfy consumers, but it also depletes marine species that help stabilize ecosystems. Fishermen now target fish that haven’t traditionally been popular, such as grenadiers and blue lingcods, to keep pace with fast-growing demand. Since these deep-water fish reproduce much more slowly than more common varieties like carp, their loss could have drastic ecological consequences.

What’s more, because ocean wildlife is dwindling, fishermen must work ever harder for their catches. It takes five times as many kilowatt-hours of effort to bring in a given amount of fish as it took in 1950, because targeted species are in scarce supply. Fishermen now pilot their vessels farther into the ocean and fish deeper waters than before. In fact, the area worked by fishermen has expanded from 60 percent to 90 percent of the world’s oceans since the 1950s.

Technological improvements are one reason why fishermen have been able to increase their haul of edible ocean creatures despite increasing scarcity. Yet when it comes to tracking the availability of seafood stocks, techniques remain relatively primitive.

“Right now, fishing companies use old-school methods to assess biomass of different species,” said Matts Johansen, CEO of Aker BioMarine, a leading supplier of krill-based products. “You go out there with a net and catch in a grid in a certain area and see how much you get in the net. It’s very costly and takes a lot of resources.”

Things don’t have to be this way. Advanced analytics, coupled with sophisticated sensing technologies, could help fishermen meet rising demand for seafood while preserving marine biodiversity and operating more efficiently.

The practice of precision fishing begins with collecting more, and higher-quality, data. Optical sensors fixed on satellites can offer fishermen a high-resolution view of the ocean environment. Drones equipped with cameras and sensors can be easily manipulated above the ocean, and even underwater. Onboard or underwater devices can arm fishermen with live data while fishing is underway.

As data stream in from sensing instruments, they can be processed and analyzed in real time using machine learning. This way, fishermen gain useful insights about the species, volume, and size of the fish they are catching. Fishermen will progress from finding fish based on intuition, experience, and direct observation, to locating them using high-resolution models and daily forecasts over the entire fishing industry. Rather than sorting catches manually, they will be able to scan their catches automatically, using cameras, and control their quality with intelligent sorting systems.

If large-scale fishing companies around the world move to an analytics-enabled model of precision fishing, they could decrease their annual operating costs by about $11 billion. Customers would benefit from lower prices for fish and seafood. Precision-fishing techniques can also contribute to improved management of ocean resources. That could increase the industry’s profits by as much as $53 billion by 2050, while raising total fish biomass to double its current level or more.

Fishing-management authorities can also become more effective. Instead of assessing fisheries once per year and establishing management techniques that don’t change until the next annual assessment, they will be able to take continual stock of fish populations all over the world and update management decisions accordingly.

“If we are able to build robust and proven data models, you get the information you need in real time. And then you can adjust regulations based on this information,” Johansen added.

While data and algorithms may seem better suited to boardrooms than to boats, some fisheries have achieved major gains by applying them. Adopting precision-fishing techniques more broadly could help prevent the consequences of overfishing before it’s too late.

Read more in our article “Precision fisheries: Navigating a sea of troubles with advanced analytics.”

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