There is a saying among fisheries scientists that counting fish is like counting trees—except fish are mobile and invisible. Suffice to say, it’s innately difficult to observe and quantify animals that spend 99 per cent (or more) of their lives below the ocean’s surface. Yet, since fish are the last industrially sourced wild protein, it is essential that we monitor the size of fish populations, and how these populations are affected by fishing, so that they do not become over-exploited. In theory, some of the easiest pieces of information we can collect are catch data.

A caught fish is a visible (and eventually immobile) fish so there should be little uncertainty surrounding how many fish humans catch each year. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. Scientific research suggests the total global catch has been under-reported by over 50 per cent during the last six decades. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that, in many cases, technology for rapidly calculating and conveying information on landed catches remains insufficient or non-existent for many of the 15 million artisanal fishers around the world today.

Artisanal fisheries account for a large amount of unreported catch.

Artisanal fisheries account for a large amount of unreported catch.

Technology, however, is not lacking in all aspects of fisheries. Advances in vessel technology both during and since the Second World War have played a huge role in why many fish stocks have become over-fished. From industrial fishing fleets using some of the most advanced sonar gear to find fish far offshore to fishing boats with planes and helicopters on board that can be deployed to search for schools of fish from above— technological advances are helping us catch more fish. Unfortunately we do not know as much about the world’s fish stocks as we should and we still lose a lot of fish each year to illegal activities such as fishing in marine protected areas and at-sea transhipments.

Overfishing in the ocean today

Scientific research suggests the total global catch has been under-reported by over 50 per cent during the last six decades. Photo Credit: C. Ortiz Rojas

Luckily, it’s not all bad. In fact, there are many ways technology is helping researchers and the general public protect our oceans. For example, the Vancouver Aquarium B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network uses a mobile app to receive valuable information entered by the general public. Ocean Wise sustainable seafood program as well as its U.S. counterpart, Seafood Watch, also have mobile apps that consumers can use to make smart, sustainable seafood choices. Animal tracking devices — like the ones deployed on some of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre seals when they are released—employ GPS to help marine biologists learn about the mysterious lives and migration routes of many ocean creatures.

To encourage additional technological solutions to marine problems, the U.S. Department of State developed the Fishackathon in 2014. Globally, 43 host institutions and more than 2,000 coders participated in this 48-hour event this year. This was the second year that the Vancouver Aquarium was involved, and we hosted 55 coders to work on fisheries or ocean-related problems. The coders were more than up to the challenge and devised prototype solutions to these problems. The winning design at our site was an app that can correctly determine the length of a fish just from taking a photo. It is also able to capture the location of the shot and, ultimately, the coders hope to include a species recognition component as well. This type of app has the potential to be highly useful to scientists conducting research surveys and also to artisanal fishers so they can instantly capture and report their landings.

Fishackaton winners

The winning team of Fishackathon 2016 at the Vancouver Aquarium designed an app that can correctly determine the length of a fish just from taking a photo.

Of course there are no quick fixes to many of the challenges facing fisheries today. We need both innovate and practical solutions to help ameliorate the variety of marine-related problems currently facing our oceans. But, events like the Fishackathon will only make collaboration between computer scientists and fisheries scientists easier and more productive in the long-term.

AquaBlog post by Laurenne Schiller, Ocean Wise research analyst at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. 

Overfishing is the single biggest threat facing our oceans today. With nearly 700 partners across Canada, Ocean Wise makes it easy for consumers to make sustainable seafood choices that ensure the health of our oceans for generations to come. The Ocean Wise symbol next to a seafood item is the Vancouver Aquarium’s assurance of an ocean-friendly seafood choice. www.oceanwise.ca

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