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How Smart Boats Could Help Solve the Overfishing Crisis

EDF's Smart Boat Initiative seeks to partner with stakeholders in the fishing industry to test technologies such as sensors, networks and data analysis that could transform fishing vessels into "smart boats."

Overfishing involves catching fish at rates too high where fish stocks cannot recover. This unsustainable practice harms the environment, puts workers along with their livelihoods at risk and breaches government regulations.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that fishing and aquaculture account for 12 percent of the world population's livelihoods and supply 17 percent of global animal protein in people’s diets. Yet overfishing has depleted many fish stocks and continues to push fishery workers farther away from the coast and into far more dangerous waters.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has a plan to combat the issues caused by overfishing with the launch of its Smart Boat Initiative. EDF has started working with large- and small-scale partners to test sensors, networks, data analysis and other pioneering technologies that can turn fishing vessels into "smart boats."

Why it’s imperative fishing goes digital

Through its research, EDF reports that we’re running out of time to solve the crisis of overfishing. If initiatives to aid the fishery industry do not move forward, 80 percent of all fisheries could be compromised by 2030. Nearly one billion people may have their livelihoods disrupted, and 3 billion people who rely on fish as an important source of protein may lose it. These are just the human impacts.

The silver lining here may very well be technology and its ability to bring age-old practices up to speed. The time has come to explore the benefits the fishing industry can reap from equipping boats with low-cost sensors and connecting vessels through satellite internet and artificial intelligence. Through EDF’s new initiative to harness the digital revolution to accelerate networked fisheries, real-time data could streamline the industry’s circle of information.

Sensors with cameras, broadband coverage and data analysis software can automate processes—previously done with paper and pen. One process where automation would significantly reduce long-term operating costs and increase time savings is catch monitoring. Catch monitoring lets fishermen know the right amount of fish to take out to keep stocks healthy. Typically a fisheries regulator would require an observer on board a fishing vessel. The observer would look at the catches and write down what was occurring and bring the logs back to shore to be entered into a management system. Sometimes this process can take months before that data is processed and recorded. The biggest opportunity with electronic catch monitoring is speeding up the process and bringing it to real-time. In most cases this is an economically viable alternative for observer coverage.

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers another opportunity to revolutionize sustainable fishing. AI can classify observed catches by species and assist regulators in getting a more complete picture of legal harvests and unlawful operations, such as whether a vessel is fishing inside a protected area or without permit.

Greater efficiency, profitability and sustainability

EDF wants to prove "smart boats" can redefine fishing and how fisheries can be managed so the industry can proceed with greater efficiency, profitability and sustainability. The organization’s overall mission is to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends. Guided by science and economics, EDF works to find practical and lasting solutions to serious environmental problems.

What can be gained from smart boat technology includes tracking the kind of fish fishermen want to catch, ensuring fish meet size standards as to help stocks mature and replenish, which helps reduce some of the detrimental environmental impacts created by overfishing. If speed and efficiency gains aren’t compelling enough, worker safety is also increased by connecting vessels at sea. From vessel to market, smart boat technology can work to sustain healthy, productive cycles.


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