Our oceans sustain us. They give us oxygen and they capture carbon dioxide. They feed us and they provide a wage to 40 million people across the world. They bring us joy and they show us beauty.
But we are not sustaining our oceans in return. We are taking more from them than can be replenished. We have destroyed half of all coral reefs. 90% of big fish populations are depleted when one billion people depend on oceans for their main source of protein. With time running out, what can we do?
For World Ocean Day on June 8th, we brought four experts together from Scotland, Nova Scotia, Oslo and New York to discuss one significant way of alleviating the pressure on oceans: technology-driven fish farming. I moderated an inspiring session where the speakers — each an ocean lover — talked about their vision for sustainable aquaculture, the technologies they’re using to make it happen and the barriers that need to be lifted.
World Ocean Day: Kickstarting a decade of opportunity
“World Ocean Day celebrates how amazing and fantastic oceans are but it’s also a rallying point for action to protect our oceans” said Mhairi McCann, founder & CEO of Youth STEM 2030 and a member of the World Ocean Day Youth Advisory Council. As the UN Decade of Ocean Science kicks off “we’re at a key point to be able to make the difference that we need to be able to protect this valuable resource for generations to come.”
Changing the reputation of aquaculture
Given its mixed reputation and calls from some quarters to stop eating fish altogether, is aquaculture really the right way forward? Jonathan Grant, Professor at the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie University, Canada, recognizes that negative misinformed public opinion of aquaculture is a hindrance. “The idea that we can’t sustainably farm contained animals in the sea, is just not right“ he said. Mhairi McCann cited the 50% of people in developing countries for whom fish is a primary source of protein saying that any attempt to stop them sourcing fish would be disproportionately unjust.
No sustainability without transparency
For Steinar Sønsteby CEO of Atea, transparency is the baseline for any sustainability drive. Atea has partnered with the Norwegian Seafood Association and IBM to use blockchain to provide information about the life story of Norwegian salmon to partners along its journey: from industry buyers to customs authorities, and eventually to diners in restaurants. Donna Lanzetta, CEO of Manna Fish Farms, believes “as an ocean producer, we need to be responsible. To go out into the ocean is a privilege … and it needs to be transparently done, engaging with society.”
Tech innovation all along the value chain
Given the urgent need to act, what are some the technology options that can already be deployed to aquaculture today?
Jon Grant has pioneered breakthroughs in Marine Spatial Planning (MSP), which he describes as “conflict resolution among different users in the ocean so that everyone is able to sustainably use the ocean.” MSP is similar to land zone planning, but much more complex in the underwater and less-known environment of the ocean. Manna Farms uses MSP to “detect any type of marine habitat reefs or potential life, and design our farm in the least impactful location” said Donna Lanzetta.
Jon has also joined IBM and a broad group of industry and academic partners, on an EU funded project called GAIN (Green Aquaculture Intensification in Europe). Amongst other activities, GAIN imbeds sensors and monitors into fish and fish farms, and IBM analytics and machine learning technologies are applied to the data collected. The results help farmers make real time decisions, prevent environmentally damaging activities such as excess feed and fish escapes, and predict the impacts of a range of circumstances on the surrounding waters and on the welfare of the fish itself.
The data gathered in the aforementioned blockchain project for Norwegian salmon is of use across the full value chain — from governments to customers to suppliers. In an industry where bad practices by some players leads to doubts about the true origin and sustainability of fish “the beauty of blockchain is that data cannot be manipulated after it’s put on there” said Steinar Sønsteby. Before too long people in restaurants will be able to have, via a QR code, the life story of the Norwegian salmon on the menu.
Fish farming data captured on the blockchain could also be used as evidence to gain official certifications of sustainability, which are increasingly important to retailers and buyers of fish.
The challenges of accessibility, education and inclusion
IBM is committed to including smallholders in our initiatives to develop sustainable agriculture. The same should apply to aquaculture. Steiner Sønsteby flagged the challenge that many fish farms are not digitized nor are their owners digitally-savvy. Atea had to convince and educate a whole sector about data and blockchain. As technologies rapidly evolve, it will be necessary for small players in aquaculture to be aware of what solutions are available and how to use them.
Donna Lanzetta called for the public to become more “ocean-literate” to be able to interpret the troves of data that are available, and to understand the meaning of certification. “Please make sure young people’s voices are heard” said Mhairi McCann. Even if they are not tech-savvy — or sometimes don’t have access to the technology — young people care about oceans and they need the opportunities and the support to be able to make a difference.
We’re at that point…
World Ocean Day is an important moment in time to stop and reflect on all that the ocean provides to us and how we can use technology to give back. I truly believe we are at that crucial point where individuals, nations, companies and organizations are starting to engineer sustainability through the aquaculture value chain. It was enlightening to have such an open conversation with Mhairi, Steinar, Donna and Jon about their experiences and about their vision for using technologies to improve our oceans.
Click here to watch the entire panel (60 minutes).
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