Oceans and AI: Consumers demand sustainable fisheries

This photo shows Art installation made of about 40,000 waste plastic bottles collected from the beach in China's Shandong province Saturday. The installation is 9.1 meter long and 5.6 meter wide. (Photo credit: Feature China / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Art installation made of about 40,000 waste plastic bottles collected from the beach in China's Shandong province Saturday. The installation is 9.1 meter long and 5.6 meter wide. (Photo credit: Feature China / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

This article is the third 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.

The global demand for fish is on the rise as more consumers recognize its nutritional benefits. But many of these same consumers are increasingly wary about the environmental impacts of overfishing and the overall health of the ocean.  They want to know the source of their seafood — down to its habitat and food source, and whether the fishing practices which brought it to them are sustainable or harmful to the environment.

Answering these questions are notable marketing campaigns and well-intentioned clean-up efforts by large and small fishing outfits. Two of their aims: to provide greater visibility into sustainability and the removal of plastics from the oceans. Making them possible is data, collected and shared by fishers, cultivators, environmental groups, and sellers.

What color is your salmon?

Buying guides and educational materials about ocean fisheries are distributed through many large grocery stores, often displayed where consumers select their fish — you guessed it, the fish section.  The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for instance, created a seafood buying guide to help consumers ensure the fish they eat is healthy for them as well as for the environment.

The NRDC’s guide describes how our oceans are being polluted and acidifying; the overfishing of one-third of global fish populations; and how mercury levels in fish are reaching higher levels partly due to the burning of coal. And finally, it drives home the importance of buying fish locally from small-scale, sustainable fishing operations that use catch methods like hook and line, or laying pots and traps.

There’s also the SeaFood Watch mobile app, which consumers can check at a store or restaurant. Created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the app employs a science-based process to grade seafood choices to help  consumers “choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment.”

This screenshot shows how The Seafood Watch app grades fish based on environmental impact and sustainability. (Image credit: Seafood Watch/screenshot)

The Seafood Watch app grades fish based on environmental impact and sustainability. (Image credit: Seafood Watch/screenshot)

And much like Energy Star ratings for household appliances, a number of organizations have created their own eco-certification standards. Next time you buy fish, look for labels bearing seals of approval from such organizations as Naturland, Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP).

While a focus on the health benefits of fish consumption is a widely recognized driver of demand, it’s happening at the same time as supplies diminish and prices rise. The real prices of most fresh and frozen fish have risen since World War II, in contrast to prices of most animal-origin foods, which have declined steeply over the past several decades, according to the “Future of Fish, Issues, and Trends to 2020,” a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute.

These rising prices are not lost on the fish industry. While consumer marketing can be viewed as a cynical tool to keep demand for fish growing, advocacy efforts influence consumers to pressure the industry to act in its best interest and support ocean sustainability as part of its mission.

Plastic blue jeans

While rising prices may be one challenge for fishing, another is plastic pollution. Each year more than eight million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans. It’s the equivalent of five grocery bags — filled with plastic water bottles, milk jugs, and detergent containers — for every foot of coastline in the world.  This pollution poses a devastating threat, killing hundreds of thousands of mammals annually and putting some fisheries in peril.

This photo shows Fish and plastic waste inside the nets on a fishing boat in the Tyrrhenian Sea on May 24, 2018 in Livorno, Italy. About 10% of the volume of each fish haul caught is plastic waste. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

Fish and plastic waste inside the nets on a fishing boat in the Tyrrhenian Sea on May 24, 2018 in Livorno, Italy. About 10% of the volume of each fish haul caught is plastic waste. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

In the recent past, efforts to combat the plastic problem were often solo efforts marked by entrepreneurial ambition and noble goals. But the urgency and scale of this problem are now leading to coordinated, international approaches

One of these efforts is a partnership among three organizations: G-Star Raw, based in Amsterdam, Parley for the Oceans in New York, and Bionic in Cyprus. The trio is working to remove non-biodegradable waste floating in the oceans.

Parley retrieves plastic debris from beaches and from the open ocean with floating barriers like its Ocean Cleanup System 001, an autonomous device targeting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Parley passes the collected plastic to Bionic, which makes yarn out of it. G-Star uses an advanced manufacturing process to convert the yarn into denim for use in jeans and jackets. The fabric has the look and feel of cotton denim but is distinguished by its origin.

This illustration shws how The Ocean Cleanup System 001 is outfitted with a wide range of sensors and data gathering technologies to remove plastic from the oceans. (image credit: The Ocean Cleanup)

The Ocean Cleanup System 001 is outfitted with a wide range of sensors and data gathering technologies to remove plastic from the oceans. (image credit: The Ocean Cleanup)

Another company  is tackling the oceanic scrouge with alternatives to plastic. Loliware, based in New York, has developed single-use bioplastics that are hyper-compostable and even edible because they’re derived from seaweed. The cups and straws taste like fruit roll-ups.

Unlikely alliances

Marketing efforts to promote fishery health and clean-up efforts to protect the oceans requires coordination among groups often in opposition to one another: industry and environmental groups. But both understand the fundamental interdependence among fishers, merchants, and wholesalers.

Environmental challenges—and opportunities for sustainable practices—do not stop at the boat, the dock, the factory, the store, or even at the restaurant table. Each stop along the way depends on what comes before and after, with the choices and actions of individual people determining the overall impact of this interdependency.