This is the future of fishing

Tech innovation and ocean conservation

Computers that can recognize fish faces. Robots that swim through the sea collecting data. Algorithms that can detect illegal fishing activity out in the middle of the ocean. This is the future of fishing.

Technology extends our senses. It allows us to see what was once invisible, hear what was inaudible, and to reach the unreachable. Technology also expands our minds. Advances in data science and artificial intelligence enable us to detect patterns in what used to look like random clouds of data, and to predict the future — something that our brains are famously poor at doing.

Technology has already transformed many economic sectors. For example, retailers can now predict shopping and buying patterns, enabling them to send customized ads to us. Some technologies have even resulted in entirely different ways of getting around and making money, like ride-sharing and the gig economy.

But the fishing industry and fishery management remain largely in the dark. Most of the world’s fishing vessels lack any kind of GPS, making an already hazardous profession even more dangerous. And most of the world’s fisheries are not monitored at all, meaning that even the most basic facts that are needed to manage these fisheries — like how many fish are caught, and how many are left in the sea to reproduce — are lacking.

Rod Fujita shopping in a market in the Philippines

Lack of data, lack of technical capacity to make sense of the data, and poor governance are holding fisheries back from realizing their full potential. The world’s fisheries currently produce about 90 million metric tons of seafood each year. Billions of people depend on this bounty for protein and micronutrients. Over 50 million people are directly employed in fisheries and millions more work in industries that support fisheries and deliver seafood to consumers.

Global fisheries production has leveled off or declined in recent years. But the potential for fisheries to feed the hungry and lift people out of poverty — even while leaving more fish in the water to play their important ecological roles — is much, much greater. Recent studies suggest that by adopting science-based, sustainable management globally, fisheries can achieve this potential — even in the face of climate change.

The good news is that we already know how to improve fishery management in this way. Management systems that include secure fishing rights, science-based limits on fishing mortality, and accountability measures can result in stewardship and empower marginalized stakeholders if they are designed and implemented well. We’ve seen the results in dozens of successful fisheries.

Good data are fundamental to such high-performance management systems. Data analysis and interpretation are also key. And we also need mechanisms to translate data and analysis into management actions that adjust catches to make sure that fish populations are maintained at levels capable of producing high yields over many years.

The challenges and opportunities lie in figuring out how to do these things in all fisheries, regardless of the financial and technical resources available. In places like the United States, a team of Ph.D scientists will work for months using data collected from costly research vessels and targeted surveys to assess the health of a fish population. It takes skilled managers and experts to convert the outputs of those assessments into management actions, and myriad technicians and other experts to collect data and administer programs.

Off Cebu Island in the Philippines

Many countries lack the resources and technical capacity to manage fisheries in this way. The default has been to impose regulations that are not based on data or science, or even to fail to manage fisheries at all. But advances in technology and data science applied to conservation — what Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)President Fred Krupp has dubbed the Fourth Wave of environmentalism — can help overcome this challenge and greatly accelerate progress on these fronts, spreading successful management to the thousands of fisheries that span the globe.

I recently returned from the Philippines, where EDF is working with many partners to explore how technology can help strengthen science-based management in one of the world’s top fishing nations. Millions of Filipinos depend on fishing for their livelihoods, and 90 percent of the fish caught in the Philippines stays there, making up more than half of animal protein consumed by the population.

Unfortunately, many fisheries have already been depleted in the Philippines, making fisheries reform a critical priority. The government has committed to amending the national fishery law. The first step toward implementing this new policy is to make sure local and federal fishery managers have the data and tools they need. We started by providing training on an open-source tool (the Framework for Integrated Stock and Habitat Evaluation, or FISHE) EDF has developed that helps fishery managers conduct science-based assessment and management at a fraction of the cost of the conventional approach. FISHE (part of EDF’s comprehensive fisheries toolkit) helps them find unconventional sources of data (such as visual census data from SCUBA divers) and combine them with whatever other data are available, including local knowledge, to evaluate the performance of the fishery relative to targets and limits, changing management measures over time so that the fishery continually improves.

Bird’s eye view of the sardine fisheries in the Philippines

On my most recent trip, I had the opportunity to do some research in partnership with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources aimed at developing a new technological approach for generating data for fisheries management in the Philippines. We used active sonar technology to bounce sound at precise frequencies off a sardine school to see if the reflected energy corresponds to the number of fish and their average size. We also used passive acoustics (hydrophones) to record the sounds that sardines make in order to locate sardine schools and corroborate our estimates of abundance.

Mounting the sensors on the boat

Sardines are incredibly important to the Filipino fishing industry and a focus of government managers because they contribute so much to food security and livelihoods. Acoustic technologies are coming down in size, cost, and ease of operation (we were able to mount our sensors and signal processing equipment on a 30 foot wooden Filipino outrigger boat). For these reasons, we hope that these technologies can be deployed in the Philippines and other developing countries to provide more robust and regularly available data on sardine populations for fishery managers. These data can then be used to drive science-based fisheries management that can unlock the full potential of these fish to provide food and good livelihoods while continuing to fulfill their important ecological roles as grazers and forage for ocean wildlife.

Clearly, the Fourth Wave is making it possible to generate far more data. In addition to the acoustic technologies we tested in the Philippines, rapid advances are being made in sensor technologies that can take high resolution photos and videos on the salt-water soaked, heaving deck of a fishing boat. These technologies make it possible to collect data on catch, fishing effort, and fish abundance cost-effectively in almost any fishery. Lower data transmission costs are making it possible to transmit these data directly to scientists, managers, and seafood companies while at the same time dramatically improving communications and other aspects of life at sea.

These new data and our ability to collect them in real-time has the potential to not only make fisheries management more adaptive to a changing climate, but they can also help seafood businesses large and small become more efficient and profitable by allowing shore-side operations to communicate market changes to boats at sea. But all of these advances are generating so much data that it is becoming difficult for humans to interpret or make use of it. Fortunately, advances in data science are alleviating this problem.

Machine learning — basically, training computers to recognize associations and correlations in massive datasets — is increasingly making it possible to use computers to identify fish species in photos and videos, count them, and even estimate their size. These analytical outputs are essential for evaluating how fisheries are doing, and how they are responding to management actions: the basic ingredients of good fishery management.

Off Cebu Island in the Philippines

From digital tags that track a fish from hook to plate to online classrooms that enable more people to gain the knowledge they need to make their fisheries sustainable, the potential innovations are diverse and powerful. But it’s important to recognize that technology can be good or bad for the environment and thus for human welfare, depending on what it is and how it is deployed. That in turn depends on the economic and psychological incentives for using or not using the technology and the rules and regulations in place.

For example, fishers use technology like active sonar for hunting down fish, and without the incentives created by effective fishery governance, which can lead to the rapid depletion of newly discovered fish populations. An incentive to maximize catch due to poor management is a primary barrier to unlocking the obvious potential of technology to help us produce more food, improve human welfare, and increase the number of fish in the sea. There are many others.

Poor design processes have resulted in many useless technologies that never scale. Poor value propositions for users — like providing out-of-date weather information in exchange for catch or effort data — result in poor uptake. Inattention to whether enabling conditions like internet connectivity, training, or personnel to maintain equipment are present has also doomed many technologies.

All of these obstacles are surmountable. The same human-centered design processes that result in great products that tens of millions of people use every day can be employed to create technologies for fisheries assessment and management that address genuine needs in practical ways. We have shown that it is possible to replace incentives that motivate overfishing while driving fishing costs up and profits down, with incentives that are aligned with sustainable fishing and higher profits. We also know how to engage stakeholders in the design of better management systems so as to improve social and ecological outcomes.When technologies are developed or deployed in this context — always with the user’s interests and challenges in mind — they too will be aligned with sustainability and the improvement of human welfare. This is how the Fourth Wave of environmentalism will help heal the ocean while sustaining fisheries and the many other benefits that the ocean provides for generations to come.

You can see an image gallery of Dr. Fujita’s trip to the Philippines and the tech they deployed here.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave