The information age is beginning to transform fishing around the world


File image courtesy of USN

Posted on May 1, 2022 at 3:41 p.m. by

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[By Nicholas P. Sullivan]

People in the developed countries of the world live in a post-industrial age, working mainly in the service or knowledge industries. Manufacturers are increasingly relying on sensors, robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning to replace human labor or make it more efficient. Farmers can monitor crop health via satellite and apply pesticides and fertilizers with drones.

Commercial fishing, one of the world’s oldest industries, is an exception. Industrial fishing, with factory ships and deep-sea trawlers landing thousands of tonnes of fish at a time, remains the dominant mode of hunting in much of the world.

This approach has led to overfishing, stock depletion, habitat destruction, the senseless destruction of unwanted bycatch and wasting 30-40% of landed fish. Industrial fishing has devastated pre-industrial artisanal fleets in Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

The end product is largely a commodity that travels around the world like a manufactured coin or digital currency, rather than fresh local produce from the sea. An average fish travels 5,000 miles before it reaches a plate, according to the advocates of sustainable fishing. Some are frozen, shipped to Asia for processing, then refrozen and sent back to the United States

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 fishing has begun an encouraging shift toward a less destructive and more transparent post-industrial era. This is the case in the United States, Scandinavia, most of the European Union, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines and much of America from South.

Fish with data

Changes in behavior, technology and policy are occurring throughout the fishing industry. Here are some examples:

Global Fishing Watch, an international non-profit organization, monitors and creates open-access visualizations of global fishing activity on the Internet with a 72-hour turnaround. This breakthrough in transparency has led to the arrest and conviction of illegally fishing boat owners and captains.

The Global Seafood Traceability Dialogue, an international business-to-business initiative, creates voluntary industry standards for seafood traceability. These standards are designed to help harmonize the different systems that track seafood while along 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 products come from and if they were produced in a sustainable way.

Fishing boats in New Bedford, Mass. — the number one U.S. fishing port, based on total catch value — are being outfitted with sensors to develop a marine databank that will provide anglers with temperature, ocean salinity and oxygen levels. Linking this data to actual stock behavior and catch levels should help fishers target certain species and avoid incidental catches.

Annual catch limits, distributed by individual quotas for each fisherman, have helped to stem overfishing. Imposing catch shares can be very controversial, but since 2000, 47 US stocks that were overfished and closed have been rebuilt and reopened to fishing, thanks to policy decisions based on the best available science. Examples include snow crab in the Bering Sea, swordfish in the North Atlantic, and red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico.

A growing “fishie” movement that mirrors the widespread “foodie” locavore movement has been gaining momentum for over a decade. Inspired by agriculture, Community Supported Fisheries subscribers pre-pay for regular deliveries from local fishermen. Such engagement between consumers and producers is beginning to shape buying habits and introduce consumers to new types of fish that are abundant but not iconic like the cod of old.

Farming fish on land

Aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world, led by China. The United States, which has exclusive jurisdiction over 3.4 million square miles of ocean, has just one percent of the global market.

But aquaculture, primarily shellfish and kelp, is the third largest fishery in the Greater Atlantic region, after lobsters and scallops. Contractors also farm finfish – including salmon, branzino, barramundi, rainbow trout, eels and trevallies – primarily in large land-based recirculation systems that reuse 95% or more of their water.

Industrial-scale ocean salmon farming in Norway in the 1990s was largely responsible for the perception that farmed fish were bad for wild fish and ocean habitats. Today, this industry has shifted to less dense deep-water offshore enclosures or land-based recirculation systems.

Virtually all new salmon farms in the United States — in Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana, and several planned in Maine and California — are land-based. In some cases, water from aquariums is circulated through greenhouses to grow vegetables or hemp, a system called aquaponics.

There is a heated debate over proposals to open US federal waters, between 3 and 200 miles offshore, for ocean aquaculture. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that without a growing mariculture industry, the United States will not be able to reduce and may even widen its $17 billion seafood trade deficit.

A voracious China

This kind of progress is not uniform across the fishing industry. Notably, China is the world’s largest producer of seafood, accounting for 15% of global wild catches as well as 60% of aquaculture production. Chinese fishing exerts a huge influence on the oceans. Observers estimate that China’s fishing fleet may number up to 800,000 vessels and its offshore fleet may include up to 17,000 vessels, compared to 300 for the United States.

According to a study by nonprofit advocacy group Oceana using data from Global Fishing Watch, between 2019 and 2021, Chinese boats carried out 47 million hours of fishing activity. More than 20% of this activity took place on the high seas or within the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of more than 80 other nations. Fishing in other countries’ waters without permission, as some Chinese boats do, is illegal. Chinese vessels often target West African, South American, Mexican and Korean waters.

Most Chinese deep-sea vessels are so large that they catch as many fish in a week as local boats in Senegal or Mexico could catch in a year. Much of this fishery would not be profitable without government subsidies. Clearly, keeping China to higher standards is a priority for maintaining a healthy global fishery.

The restorative power of the ocean

There is no shortage of grim information about how overfishing, along with other stresses like climate change, are affecting the world’s oceans. Nevertheless, I think it is worth pointing out that more than 78% of current marine fish landings come from biologically sustainable stocks, according to the United Nations. And overexploited fisheries can often rebound with smart management.

For example, the scallop fishery on the East Coast of the United States, which all but disappeared in the mid-1990s, is now a sustainable $570 million per year industry.

Another success story is Cabo Pulmo, an eight kilometer stretch of coast at the southeastern end of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Once a vital fishing area, Cabo Pulmo was barren in the early 1990s after intense overfishing. Then the local communities persuaded the Mexican government to turn the area into a marine park where fishing was prohibited.

“In 1999, Cabo Pulmo was an underwater desert. Ten years later, it was a kaleidoscope of life and color,” observed ecologist Enric Sala, director of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Project, in 2018.

Scientists say that through effective management, marine life at Cabo Pulmo has recovered to a level that makes the reserve comparable to remote, pristine sites that have never been fished. Fishing outside the refuge has also rebounded, showing that conservation and fishing are not mutually exclusive. In my opinion, this is a good benchmark for a post-industrial ocean future.

Nicholas P. Sullivan is Senior Fellow at the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program and Senior Fellow at the Council on Emerging Market Enterprises, Tufts University.

This article appears courtesy of The Conversation and can be found in its original form here.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.


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