How aquaculture leverages technology for a bright economic and environmental future

The global oceans play an important role in planetary health, providing ecosystem services that range from supporting communities dependent on the blue economy, to oxygenated water, acting as a heat and carbon sink, and moderating the climate.

But the health of our oceans is under threat.

“The problems and threats currently facing our oceans come from many different directions, be it the climate crisis, overfishing or resource extraction. Our oceans are in trouble,”Mhairr McCann, a member of the World Oceans Day Youth Advisory Council, said during a recent panel discussion moderated by IBM.

If the prognosis is bad for the health of the oceans, is the cure to stop eating fish altogether?

McCann doesn’t think so. Highlighting the important role that seafood plays in food security and livelihoods, she insists that the focus must be on developing a more sustainable seafood sector. “If we do this right, [environmental and economic objectives] can go together. The option to stop eating fish would be unfair.

Donna Lanzetta, CEO of fish farming company Manna Fish Farms, is inclined to agree. With 97% of the Earth’s surface covered by water, getting nutrition from the sea will be essential to feed the world’s growing population and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, she said. “Beyond protein, seafood provides a source of vitamin D, vitamin A, selenium, zinc, iron and more,”noted the seafood expert.

“Quitting eating seafood is not the solution. The solution would be to have responsible actors in the ocean, committed to transparency, so that we can base our decisions on scientific facts and not on incendiary projections or past operations.

“We want to produce seafood products that relieve wild stocks, be the most efficient in every way… Going out into the ocean is a privilege.”

Busting the “myths” surrounding farmed fish

Lanzetta was eager to dispel a number of “myths” that she says are now associated with seafood – and farmed seafood in particular.

“Many myths surround fish farming. Statistics indicate that 46% of people have a negative view of farmed fish,”noted the CEO.

“A myth I would like to dispel today is the myth that the conventional fishing industry cannot co-exist with aquaculture…As we move towards a more sustainable future, it will be a collaboration. “

Aquaculture also has a bad reputation when it comes to pollution. Eutrophication – where water is enriched with dissolved nutrients that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life, leading to the depletion of dissolved oxygen – is a concerning side effect of fish farming. The same is true for marine animal waste from aquaculture facilities that enters the ecosystem, affecting other fish and leading to nutrient pollution.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Lanzetta insisted. “We have new tools and technologies that minimize food waste. We can use artificial intelligence to get the optimal amount of food and make sure there’s not too much suffocation of life at the bottom of the seabed. More importantly, we have new technology, sensors and modeling that can calculate exactly what that impact is and we can base our decisions on scientific facts.

“Technology has been transformative”

For Dalhousie University oceanographer Professor Jon Grant, recent technological developments have enabled the aquaculture sector to move further, faster, on its path to sustainability.

“For fish farming, where there is a lot of material in the water, ocean technology has been transformative over the past five years. Companies have developed wireless sensors for temperature, oxygen and other variables.They have produced a dense network of information and sensors that is available to farmers in real time on their smartphones.

This data is used to inform decisions about food, storage and health treatments, the oceanographer noted. “They also make a difference to the welfare of the fish”, he continued, highlighting the use of heart rate monitors to track wellness.

The important role seafood plays in livelihoods was highlighted by Steinar Sønsteby, CEO of IT infrastructure company Atea. Seafood, Sønsteby noted, is the country’s second biggest export and an industry deeply embedded in Norwegian culture. “Fishing has been the backbone of Norwegian society since we’ve been around.”

He agrees that the effective collection and use of data has the power to transform the way fish is farmed, enabling farmers and consumers to make sustainable decisions. To achieve this vision, Atea helped build the Norwegian Seafood Network.

Together with IBM and the Norwegian Seafood Association, Atia is developing technology solutions to help boost sustainable seafood production and increase transparency and traceability.

“Data is the answer…Through the blockchain, we ensure that the data placed in the blockchain cannot be manipulated, that’s so important. The data is collected automatically through sensors along the chain of value… from animal feed to human food.”

The biggest challenge in implementing this project has been overcoming the “technical debt” of an industry based on traditional knowledge. But adoption has been strong among farmers and, most importantly, their customers.

“The most interesting thing that has happened over the past two years is that customers are asking for this information. In retail stores and restaurants, people are using QR codes [to see if the seafood was sustainably produced].”

The panel concluded that simply “not eating fish” will not solve the problems facing the oceans today. However, there was optimism that new technologies will provide solutions.

As McCann concluded: “Technology can play a key role in solving many global challenges, especially those related to the oceans.”

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