- Several companies around the world are developing technology to make fishing and aquaculture more sustainable.
- These include the use of artificial intelligence to identify non-native species that disrupt marine food webs and the fisheries they support, and lights that attempt to attract only target species to fishing nets in a bid to reduce the capture of non-targeted species.
- With the rapidly increasing global population underscoring the need to source protein more sustainably, experts say it’s urgent to find ways to make fishing less damaging and more productive.
For people who fish for a living, removing bycatch from nets is a tedious task. It’s expensive, labor-intensive and causes wear to the fishing vessel and gear. For marine animals unintentionally captured, the results are more debilitating — mostly fatal. From an ecological point of view, killing too many animals unintentionally can disrupt entire marine ecosystems and the food chains that keep them balanced. And yet, bycatch comprises as much as 40% of the global fishing catch.
U.K.-based startup SafetyNet Technologies is attempting to find a technological solution. The company deploys LED lights of varying colors and intensities that fishers can attach to their gear to attract certain species. They can change the lights depending on the fish species they want to target.
“Different species can see different lights and are attracted to that,” Tom Rossiter, head of precision fishing and sales lead at SafetyNet Technologies, told Mongabay in a video interview. “It’s those triggers we use to get particular species to move towards the net.”
Surveys with fishers in the U.K. and U.S. who have trialed the lighting technology indicate that it does reduce bycatch, according to Rossiter, but larger trials are needed to show the technology’s effectiveness conclusively. “We need to increase the size of the trial further to build statistical confidence,” he said.
While Rossiter acknowledged the risk of possible overfishing due to overcongregation of target species, he said SafetyNet Technologies works to vet users to ensure its equipment is not misused. “We carry out due diligence on our customers and partners to ensure that their values align with our own,” he said.
Getting the target species to congregate in one location with the lighting technology has helped fishers save not just time, but also carbon-emitting fuel, according to the surveys. “We also don’t want people going out there and burning fuel unnecessarily to find fish,” Rossiter said.
SafetyNet Technologies is one of many companies around the world trying to develop cutting-edge technology that will make fishing more sustainable, as well as efficient. Using artificial intelligence, imaging and lighting technology and improved fishing nets, these companies are attempting to keep a check on fish health, stave off invasive species and reduce bycatch.
The need is evident. Numerous reports and studies show overfishing and competition from invasive species are among the many factors contributing to the depletion of marine life. According to a 2022 report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only 64.6% of fishing stocks were being fished “within biologically sustainable levels” in 2019, a decrease of 1.2% from 2017 and down from 90% in the 1970s. With the rapidly increasing global human population underscoring the need to source protein more sustainably, researchers say it’s urgent to find ways to make fishing less damaging and more productive.
Efforts to find workable solutions are picking up.
In New Zealand, an initiative by the government, scientists and three seafood companies aims to reduce bycatch. Precision Seafood Harvesting has successfully replaced traditional trawl nets with a net that lets smaller fish escape and lets the rest remain in the water after being caught. This gives fishers time to release bycatch with better odds of survival than in traditional nets, before hauling in the target fish.
Another company, Ohio, U.S.-based Radmantis, focuses on aquaculture. The company’s device monitors fish with imaging and artificial intelligence technology and classifies them on the basis of physical traits and appearance. When AI models detect signs that a fish is sick, such as fin discoloration, parasites or erratic swimming patterns, Radmantis’s equipment directs it out of the tank to a holding facility through a separate exit than the one healthy fish use.
“In intensive aquaculture systems, there might be a disease and it spreads and leads to the total loss of the tank before you realize that there is a problem,” Robert Huber, a Radmantis co-founder, told Mongabay in a video interview. “There is always that danger and we are not going to stand a chance doing the management manually.”
Gates open and close in the device developed by Radmantis as fish swim through it. Video courtesy of Radmantis.
Aquaculture is expected to grow in coming years, and the FAO report emphasized the need to expand it sustainably through technological innovations and policy support. Radmantis’s product aims to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, one of the major logistical and financial hurdles to fish farming.
Outside of aquaculture, Huber said, the company’s fish classification system could help identify and control invasive species in freshwater ecosystems. Huber said one potential application could be in North America’s Great Lakes region, where sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus), one of the most ecologically and financially damaging invasive species in U.S. history, have decimated populations of native fish and the fishing economy.
“We can put our devices at some choke points where the sea lampreys migrate past and, if they are identified, we can move them out into an exit that puts them into a holding facility,” Huber said. This application has yet to be tested.
Technological intervention in fishing isn’t as easy a task as it is with agriculture, given the harsh underwater environment the equipment is up against.
“In comparison to the farming industry, fishing is far behind in terms of technology,” Rossiter of SafetyNet Technologies said. “You have to engineer for an environment that is underwater and there’s a lot of abrasions and knocking around and it has got to be tough enough to withstand all that.”
Despite the challenges, Huber said the urgent need to procure seafood responsibly and sustainably will prompt further innovations that will reshape fisheries and aquaculture.
“It’s a defining issue for our planet to meet the food demand for a growing human population,” Huber said. “Blue tech is a vibrant innovation space and a lot of potential will be unlocked to do things bigger at a lower resource footprint.”
Banner image: A school of fish at sunset. Image by Jordan Robins / Ocean Image Bank.
Davies, R.W.D., Crippes, S.J., Nickson, A., & Porter, G., (2009). Defining and estimating global marine fisheries bycatch. Marine Policy, 33(4), 661-672. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2009.01.003
FAO. (2022). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022: Towards Blue Transformation. Rome, FAO. doi:10.4060/cc0461en