Oceans and AI: The new age of aquaculture

This photo shows An offshore ocean farming facility in Qingdao, Shandong Province of China. The 69-meter high offshore ocean farming facility can raise one and a half million fish. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

An offshore ocean farming facility in Qingdao, Shandong Province of China. The 69-meter high offshore ocean farming facility can raise one and a half million fish. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

This article is the second in a five-part series: Oceans and AI, which explores the practical application of technology to address threats to our planet’s seas and fish.

Fish farming has come a long way from its humble origins 4,000 years ago in China, when cages were used to raise carp. Two years ago, fish farming surpassed a major hurdle in human history when the amount of consumed farmed fish globally exceeded that of wild-caught fish. That threshold speaks to the important role of aquaculture in feeding people. Fish farming is now the fastest-growing animal-food production sector in the world, according to a United Nations report.

Our oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface and commercial-scale fishing takes place across more than 55-percent of the world’s oceans. By comparison, only 34-percent of Earth’s terrestrial areas are used for agriculture or grazing. These figures suggest the potential output from fish farms can account for two-thirds of the expected 216 million tons of fish that humans will consume annually by 2025.

This chart shows the amount of fish farmed and caught in the wild. (Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

(Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

The combined global workforce of wild and farm fishermen now hovers at around 60 million people, but that number is expected to skyrocket. In the near future, direct and indirect employment could reach more than 500 million people, with the majority of them working in aquaculture on small-scale operations in developing countries.

This increase in labor, combined with an assortment of powerful tools, such as AI and other data prediction and analysis technologies, will be leveraged to grow fish for consumption for tomorrow’s generations. New venture capital investments, while relatively small will help fuel this mega-trend. Some $122 million in funding went to startups last year, a 180 percent increase since 2014. In short, the future of offshore fish farming looks more sustainable, more traceable and more profitable.

Heatlthy fish, healthy people

Offshore aquaculture involves fish living in a netted enclosure that either is suspended underwater by floating rings or by platforms on the surface. The entire apparatus is typically anchored to the ocean floor. The fish remain in the enclosures for as long as two years, from the time they are fingerlings. They are fed a diet that may include other fish—waste from canneries and commercial fishing—and processed pellets that may include corn, soybeans and other vegetables along with fish byproducts.

This chart shows demand for fish by a growing human population. (Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

(Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

The U.S. is a relatively small player in the area of coastal fish farms, despite its very long coastline, although growing demand for fresh fish could change that. Meanwhile, China is the world’s top fish farming nation, followed by Chile, Indonesia, and the Philippines, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The output of the sector is also considerable, based on data from 2016, when fisheries accounted for 171 million tons of fish, with a “first sale” value estimated at $362 billion. It’s also a valuable trading commodity– more than $143 billion of fish were exported.

The critical importance of fisheries to people’s health can’t be ignored. The sector supplies the principal source of dietary protein for about 3.2 billion people. Still, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts the world will have to produce at least 60-percent more food relative to 2006 to feed an estimated global population of 9 billion by 2050. Specific to fisheries, fish and fish products provide an average of only about 34 calories per capita per day.

Not so-fishy AI

Off-shore aquaculture farms address many concerns about our ocean’s fisheries, namely overfishing of wild stocks. But as they’ve become more accepted, operators have discovered that overcrowding can lead to higher incidents of disease and parasites, both of which lower yields and drive up costs.  

In Norway, Cermaq’s salmon farming technology designed for use in open water cages uses a combination of sensors and computer vision to help operators monitor health conditions, and identify parasites like sea lice as well as other signs of disease. After capturing visual data on individual fish, the company’s automated IFarm system sorts diseased fish and steers them into separate cages where they can be rehabilitated through targeted treatment in their foodstuff.  

This photo shows A salmon jumps in a submerged cage in front of the feeding system at a farm of Norwegian world's largest salmon producer Marine Harvest in Indre Oppedal. (Photo credit: ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)

A salmon jumps in a submerged cage in front of the feeding system at a farm of Norwegian world’s largest salmon producer Marine Harvest in Indre Oppedal. (Photo credit: ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)

Another promising development is aquapods, cages that roam the sea without human intervention. Boston-based InnovaSea has designed, built and pioneered the use of aquapods that offer significant improvements in production over stationary fish farms.

David Kelly, InnovaSea CEO and CTO, says that 40 years ago the fish farming industry centered almost exclusively around salmon. Then, Norwegian firms were advancing the state of the art. But as the demand for fish protein has risen — it’s loaded with important nutrients like vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids — so has the need for aquaculture production.

“The modern aquaculture farm is one that’s highly managed and allows operators to fully track and manage it as a sustainable practice,” said Kelly. “We are moving the state of the art ahead as we have the ability to produce more data than we could ever comprehend, including environmental factors and monitoring fish and how satiated they are with foodstuffs.”

Another promising approach is known as restorative ocean farming and is being practiced by GreenWave, based in San Rafael, California. In contrast to ocean farming of one specific fish species like salmon, this technique relies on a diversity of species to create a more balanced ecosystem that is less likely to pollute or negatively impact the ocean. GreenWave has developed what it calls 3D ocean farming methods and has teamed up with Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute, University of Connecticut and NOAA to further integrate mussel, oyster, and kelp farming into vertical, underwater farm systems.

Meanwhile, several startups are advancing biosensor technology, with products being used in applications from salmon to oyster farming. One of them is Sense-T, from the University of Tasmania, which has leveraged the internet of things, big data, and sensing technologies to improve decision-making of when to harvest oysters. Its networks of miniature biosensors monitor oysters and measure heart rate, and other physiologic parameters, thus collecting data on oyster health and farm conditions to alert operators when to harvest oysters. The company’s sensors have also been used in salmon pens to collect data on fish behavior, water temperature, and oxygen levels, to improve efficiency and productivity.

Still another startup pursuing an innovative use of sensors is eFishery in West Java, Indonesia. The company has uses sensors to detect the hunger level of fish and feed them accordingly. Its automatic fish feeder provides scheduled feedings and records every feeding in real-time. The company claims it can reduce feed costs by up to 21-percent.

Looking ahead, the opportunity for AI and other emerging technologies to make offshore fish farms more efficient and healthier for the oceans is already taking shape. The progress calls to mind a Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

If successful, offshore aquaculture will help feed a growing and hungry global population for lifetimes to come.