Oceans and AI: Smarter supply chains

Workers on the food processing lines at the Thai Union Frozen Products Plc (TUF), in Samut Sakorn, Thailand -- one of the world's largest processors of canned seafood. Here they are processing skipjack tuna, ready for canning. (Photo by Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This article is the fourth 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.

Economists and forecasters love to wax on and on about the complexity of global supply chains involving intricate interdependencies and a wide range of actors spread across major industrial regions, all of them needing to communicate and feed one other information. And there’s perhaps no better example than the global supply chain for ocean fisheries.

What these experts have found: Fish represent one of the most traded food commodities today. Fishery and aquaculture production entering international trade registers an annual export value of more than $130 billion.

Yet until recently, fisheries were largely local affairs, managed in isolation and lacking data about fish population and ocean health — and the ability to share it across the industry to fishers, processors, and wholesalers, as well as with researchers, regulators, and environmental organizations. That’s changing quickly as sensors are now being used across the globe, recording data from the harvesting, processing, transport, and sale of seafood across the globe.

Today’s networks and the data they capture are far beyond what anyone could have imagined a decade ago. And they’re an important prerequisite to building the international cooperation needed for sustainable fishing.

Fishing for data

The fisheries supply chain consists of a global web of economic, political, social, and even ecological relationships among fish, fishers, industries, governments, and consumers. Various efforts are afoot to help bridge the digital gaps between each group. Moreover, each of the stages represents an area ripe for entrepreneurs. “Simply put, all these links together mean that, to see large-scale business growth of fish farms and fishing operations that use sustainable practices, we need more business innovation at every point along the seafood supply chain and in the connections among these pieces,” wrote Monica Jain on the National Geographic blog.

This schematic shows that The seafood supply chain consists of six stages. (Image credit: National Geographic)

The seafood supply chain consists of six stages. (Image credit: National Geographic)

Organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) have been tackling some of these systemic challenges for several years, taking the lead in aggregating data and issuing actionable reports. They’re also working hard to improve communications within fisheries.

NOAA, for example, has issued a series of relatively small grants — in the tens of thousands of dollars — to create local task forces in East and West Africa. The aims are diverse and include both non-technology and technology-based approaches. The initiatives seek to strengthen the power of national authorities, empower customs and enforcement authorities to identify listed and protected species, and increase data collection. The end goal is a set of fishing identification guides, to help regional fisheries and customs authorities effectively oversee the fishing of their waters.

Meanwhile, one of the UN’s programs seeks to build a global system for the voluntary submission of catch records by fishing vessels. In July 2017, the  Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) approved a set of measures called Voluntary Guidelines for Catch Documentation Schemes to create a software-based tool that stores and manages vessel identification and other relevant data in a format that regulators and fishers around the globe can access. By encouraging transparency among commercial fishing vessels, it will become more difficult and more expensive for unregistered vessels and companies acting illegally to do business.

The EU is working with multiple non-EU countries to secure their local waters from overfishing. Once again, data is central to the mission: collecting vessel information, matching it catch records, and doing it in a transparent manner to reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The EU’s Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement currently overs just seven percent of fisheries supplying the EU catches but has a long-term goal of covering all of them.

This photo shows A fisher from the Democratic Republic of Congo raises his hands up to surrender as Uganda Peoples Defence Marine Force (UPDMF) stop him for fishing illegally, during a patrol on Lake Edward, on August 13, 2018. (Image credit: Photo by ISAAC KASAMANI /AFP/Getty Images)

A fisher from the Democratic Republic of Congo raises his hands up to surrender as Uganda Peoples Defence Marine Force (UPDMF) stop him for fishing illegally, during a patrol on Lake Edward, on August 13, 2018. Since the UPDMF started its operations in Lake Edward, over 400 hundred illegal fishermen from the Democratic Republic of Congo have been arrested for illegal entry into the Ugandan side. Of the 400, only 96 have so far been convicted and are serving their sentences in Ugandan prisons.(Image credit: Photo by ISAAC KASAMANI /AFP/Getty Images)

A fish a day

Capturing and sharing more data about global fisheries will help ensure food security in some of the world’s poorest regions, according to the UN. For example, in West Africa, Asian coastal countries, and many small island states, the proportion of total dietary protein from fish can reach 60-percent or more. An estimated 660 to 880 million people, or roughly 12 percent of the world population, depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their daily nutrition.

As the digital transformation of fishing’s supply chains continue, and as advanced analytics and big data and other sensor technologies become pervasive, the insights gleaned should help fishers harvest catches in way that moves fisheries towards sustainability.