Transforming the fishing industry in the information age
Fisheries are entering a world of advanced analytics and data-driven planning. Can precision fishing help when oceans are under stress and major fish stocks are depleted?
People in the developed world live in the post-industrial era, working mainly in services or knowledge. Producers increasingly rely on sensors, robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning to replace human labour or make it more efficient. Farmers can monitor the health of crops via satellite and apply pesticides and fertilisers using drones .
Commercial fishing, one of the world’s oldest industries, is an absolute exception. Commercial fishing, with factory ships and deep-sea trawlers catching thousands of tonnes of fish at a time, is still the dominant method of hunting in much of the world .
This approach has led to overfishing, depletion of stocks, destruction of habitat, wanton destruction of unwanted bycatch and a loss of 30 to 40 percent of fish caught. Industrial fishing has devastated artisanal pre-industrial fleets in Asia, Africa and the Pacific.
The end product is mostly a commodity that travels around the world as an industrial item or digital currency, rather than fresh local produce from the sea. According to sustainable fisheries advocates, the average fish travels 5,000 miles before reaching the plate . Some are frozen, shipped to Asia for processing, then re-frozen and returned to the US.
But these patterns are starting to change. In my new book, The Blue Revolution: Hunting, Harvesting and Farming Seafood in the Information Age, I describe how commercial fisheries have initiated a hopeful shift towards a less destructive and more transparent post-industrial era. This is true of the USA, Scandinavia, much of the European Union, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines and much of South America.
Fishing with data
Changes in behaviour, technology and policy are occurring throughout the fishing industry. Here are some examples:
- Global Fishing Watch, an international non-profit organisation, monitors and creates publicly available visualisations of global fishing activity on the internet with a 72-hour delay. This breakthrough in transparency has led to the arrest and conviction of owners and captains of vessels engaged in illegal fishing .
- The Global Seafood Traceability Dialogue, an international initiative between businesses, is creating voluntary industry standards for seafood traceability. These standards are intended to help harmonize the various systems that track seafood in the supply chain, so that they all collect the same key information and rely on the same data sources. This information allows buyers to know where their seafood comes from and whether it has been sustainably produced.
- Fishing boats in New Bedford, Massachusetts – the largest US fishing port by total catch – are equipped with sensors to create a marine data bank which will provide fishermen with data on ocean temperature, salinity and oxygen levels. Linking this data to actual stock behaviour and catch levels is expected to help fishermen target certain species and avoid unintentional bycatch.
- Annual catch limits, divided through individual quotas for each fisherman, have helped curb overfishing. The imposition of catch shares can be highly controversial, but since 2000, 47 US stocks that were overfished and closed have been restored and reopened to fishing thanks to policy judgements based on the best available science. Examples include stringbean crab in the Bering Sea, swordfish in the North Atlantic and red sea bass in the Gulf of Mexico.
- The growing ‘phishy’ movement, which mirrors the widespread ‘gourmet’ locavore movement, has been gaining momentum for more than a decade. Taking its cue from agriculture, community-supported fisheries subscribers pay in advance for regular supplies from local fishermen. This interaction between consumers and producers is beginning to shape purchasing patterns and introduce consumers to new fish species that are widespread but not iconic like cod of the past.
Land-based fish farming
Aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world, led by China. The US, which has exclusive jurisdiction over 3.4 million square miles of ocean, has only a 1% share of the world market.
But aquaculture, mainly shellfish and seaweed, is the third-largest fishery in the Greater Atlantic after lobsters and scallops. Entrepreneurs also farm fish, including salmon, branzino, barramundi, steelhead, eel and kingfish, mostly in large land-based recirculating systems that reuse 95% or more of their water.
Commercial farming of sea salmon in Norway in the 1990s was largely responsible for the farmed fish being harmful to wild fish and ocean habitats . Today, the industry has moved to less dense deep-water marine pens or land-based recirculation systems.
Virtually all new salmon farms in the USA – in Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana and a few planned in Maine and California – are land-based . In some cases, water from aquaponics tanks is circulated in greenhouses to grow vegetables or hemp. This system is called aquaponics .
There is a heated debate about proposals to open up US federal waters 3 to 200 miles offshore to ocean aquaculture. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that without a growing mariculture industry, the US will not be able to reduce or even increase its $17 billion seafood trade deficit .
This type of progress is uneven across the fishing industry. Remarkably, China is the world’s largest producer of seafood, accounting for 15% of the world’s wild catches and 60% of its aquaculture production. Chinese fisheries have a huge impact on the oceans . Observers estimate that China’s fishing fleet could be as large as 800,000 vessels, and its long-range fleet could include as many as 17,000 vessels, compared to 300 for the US.
According to a study by the non-profit advocacy group Oceana using data from Global Fishing Watch, Chinese boats spent 47 million hours fishing between 2019 and 2021 . More than 20 per cent of this activity was on the high seas or inside the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of more than 80 other countries. Fishing in the waters of other countries without permission, as some Chinese vessels do, is illegal . Chinese ships often target the waters of West Africa, South America, Mexico and Korea .
Most Chinese long-distance vessels are so large that they catch as much fish in one week as local boats from Senegal or Mexico can catch in a year . Much of this fishing would not be profitable without government subsidies . Clearly, China’s compliance with higher standards is a priority for maintaining a healthy global fishery.
The restorative power of the ocean
There is no shortage of grim information on how overfishing, along with other stresses such as climate change, is affecting the world’s oceans . Nevertheless, I think it is worth stressing that, according to the United Nations, more than 78% of current marine fish catches are from biologically sustainable stocks . And overfished fisheries can often recover under prudent management.
For example, the US East Coast scallop fishery, which virtually ceased to exist in the mid-1990s, is now a sustainable industry with an annual turnover of US$570 million .
Another success story is Cabo Pulmo, a five-mile stretch of coastline on Mexico’s south-eastern Baja peninsula. In the early 1990s, Cabo Pulmo was a vital fishing ground due to overfishing. Then locals persuaded the Mexican government to turn the area into a marine park where fishing was banned.
“In 1999, Cabo Pulmo was an underwater desert. Ten years later it was a kaleidoscope of life and colour.” , observed ecologist Enric Sala, director of National Geographic’s Intact Seas Project, in 2018.
Scientists say that thanks to effective management, marine life in Cabo Pulmo has recovered to a level that makes the sanctuary comparable to remote, pristine places where fishing has never taken place. Fishing outside the refuge has also recovered, demonstrating that conservation and fishing are not incompatible. In my opinion, this is a good benchmark for the post-industrial future of the ocean.