A fisheries primer for curious founders

Kate Wing

Hi. Have you built an amazing thing? Have you thought about applying it to the other 70% of the planet, the ocean part? No? Because I bet we could use it. If you’ve never thought about the ocean as a target for innovation, or you’re not sure where to start, here’s an overview of fisheries topics to help you dive into the domain.

Seaweed farming (CC Wendy Lin) https://www.flickr.com/people/wendyjlin/

Seafood is a $390 billion global industry, including everything from seaweed to tuna, both farmed and wild. Per capita fish consumption is growing worldwide and fish remain the main source of high-quality protein for many people. The ocean’s complexity and remoteness can make it seem like a magical food production machine. Fish just appear in your nets until, one day, they don’t. Keeping fish populations healthy requires active work on the part of fishers, seafood buyers, managers, and scientists, who all need better tools and data systems to stay on top of catches, products, and ocean conditions. Let’s break the problem space into four general areas: Management & Enforcement, Traceability & Trust, Research & Forecasting, and Business Operations.

Management & Enforcement

If you work in finance, health care, or gov tech, you’re familiar with working in a (highly) regulated industry. Fisheries tend to be a mix of highly scrutinized and ignored. Since the law has historically treated ocean waters and coastal lands as a public resource, most governments play a strong role in controlling the access and use of their waters out to 200 nautical miles from shore. Aquaculture (fish, seaweed, shellfish) generally requires permits to lease the water and lands below it. Navies and international fisheries organizations want to track ships as they slip across national waters and cross into the high seas. With 50+ years of industrial fishing and fisheries science behind us, there is widespread agreement that good management requires setting and enforcing some type of limit on catch, which managers do with a variety of measures like gear restrictions, closing areas to fishing, and setting fishing seasons. This means scientists and government managers need solutions to track if rules are being followed and fishers need tools to help them comply.

What solutions might look like: On-board cameras that monitor what’s kept or discarded, AI to find pirates, digital forms that display rules & regulations based on your fishing location, sensors on fishing gear, voice-activated data collectors for hands-free use on a wet deck. Bonus for building interoperability to transfer data seamlessly across public and private data systems.

Traceability & Trust

Seafood is one of the most highly traded global food commodities: caught in one country, shipped to another country for processing, and then re-imported or shipped through multiple ports before finally making its way to a restaurant or fish counter. The convoluted supply chain from bait to plate makes it difficult for data to travel with the fish, challenging anyone who wants to verify that the species, catch location, and other details are what it says on the label. This is a particular concern for third-party certification groups, like the Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade, and the major buyers committed to purchasing certified products, like Walmart and Whole Foods. Poor data can also hide labor and human rights abuses. Improved traceability has been a goal of many in the seafood space for years but progress is slow. This is your area if you’re looking to use blockchain or if you want to be in Barcelona in June 2018.

What solutions might look like: Better product tracking software that can integrate data from multiple sources, handheld DNA testers for fish buyers or port inspectors, universal product IDs that work in any database anywhere in the world. Check out the winner of the 2016 Fishackathon: Fishazam.

Research & Forecasting

The ocean’s complexity and remoteness can make it seem like a magical food production machine. Fish just appear in your nets until, one day, they don’t. Even processes that are relatively well-studied — the lifecycles of salmon, the dynamics of kelp forests — are changing with warming waters and increased acidity. Every ocean food from seaweed to tuna is affected by these new ocean dynamics; estimating the size and direction of those effects is essential for businesses and for anticipating catastrophic environmental failures. We might be able to move fish farms before a toxic algae bloom hits or change catch limits and fishing areas daily to protect the reefs and living habitats that act as fish nurseries. Today, we have the computing power and data science methods to search for trends across terabytes of historic ocean research or create inferences from non-ocean data sets to fill data gaps. We need to develop and apply those data tools.

What solutions might look like: Robots, deep learning on ocean data to improve predictive models, eDNA testing that lets you detect fish by sampling the water, using internet search history to estimate fishing activity, counting fish with sound.

Business Operations

Anything that addresses problems in one of the other three categories could apply to this category as well, if it’s designed with the right users in mind. That’s not the usual approach for fisheries, where a digital logbook that sends machine-readable data to regulators might only send PDFs to fishers. No one wants to enter the same information on three separate forms, paper or digital. Fishers need to manage their licenses and operating requirements, find the best price, and track profits and losses. Seafood businesses need dashboards and secure data systems, with good data management protocols and partitioned access. Bonus for integrating smart scales, sensors on totes or shipping containers, and interfaces that can handle wet hands and fish slime.

What solutions might look like: Cell phone micropayment systems for fishers, PermitMaster 2.0, one touch reporting for fishers and fish buyers.

Portsmouth, England (CC) Des Morris https://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_mo-fo/

The pathways into ocean innovation are growing. Fish 2.0 wrapped its third business competition in October and the Fish Free Feed Challenge is on its second round. There are ocean-focused investment collaborations, like Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, the Salmon Innovation Fund and SIFF Capital. You could apply to the Ocean Solutions Accelerator (deadline Feb 17, 2018) or the TechStars + The Nature Conservancy Sustainability accelerator (deadline Apr 8, 2018). You could also get hands-on experience at the worldwide Fishackathon the weekend of February 10th, where teams at 50+ sites around the will prototype solutions for problem statements from fisheries experts. Wherever you live, whatever you’re working on, take the opportunity to connect to the sea.

Disclaimer: Links are not investment advice. I have no financial stake in any of the companies mentioned here, although I will be a judge at the 2018 San Francisco Fishackathon where I may be given free snacks.

Kate Wing

Written by

Kate Wing

Oceans, data, stories.

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