Sustainable Fishing Challenges: Fishing Vessels of the Future

As we launch our new Sustainable Fishing Challenges group in the WILDLABS community, we are excited to welcome Daniel Steadman, the group manager, to give us an overview of three major areas in which #tech4wildlife could innovate fishing for the better.

Today, Dan discusses how the fishing vessels of the future might use technology to fish more sustainably and responsibly, and he asks the WILDLABS community to bring your own expertise to the conversation! Visit this thread to get involved in this first challenge!

Header photo: Snapshot global locations of two categories of vessel: fishing (orange, yellow and green) and cargo/tanker (aqua) taken from processing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data feeds. Countries’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary lines are displayed as a thin white line. © OceanMind

Date published: 2020/08/04

Catching Up: Sustainable fishing and emerging technology

Fishing has always involved ingenuity and invention, from the Pacific Islanders’ ancient tailoring of bones and shells into fish hooks (long before metal arrived in their cultures) to modern uses of everything from rotational sensors to machine learning to digitally understand where, when and how fishing takes place. Innovation typically takes place “in-house”, i.e. led by the fishing industry itself, with an increasing movement of start-ups, NGOs and entrepreneurs – motivated primarily by tackling the environmental and social challenges of seafood production – now joining this challenge. We have created a new “Sustainable Fishing Challenges” group on WILDLABS to try foster more of this innovation and collaboratively make fishing fit for the future. 

At a very basic level, the three essential elements of fishing are 1. The vessel, 2. The fishing equipment (or “gear”), and 3. The fish (obviously). While some commonplace technologies are unrecognisable from those of the past (i.e. sonar fish finders, digital catch logbooks), some of the crucial components of the job have altered little (i.e. net design). Newly proposed vessel, gear or fish catch monitoring technologies must be robust, efficient and durable, meaning innovation needs to be answering a genuine need and be subject to thorough, collaborative testing (and consensus-building) before new advances are adopted across whole fleets or countries. 

In introducing the new WILDLABS group, we challenge users to contribute their insights/expertise/opportunities across each of these three areas.

Today, we'd like to highlight the first area of our challenge: innovating the fishing vessel.

Fishing Vessels of the Future

On a global scale, fishing boats are larger, more numerous and go further than ever before. Since 1950, the global fishing fleet has nearly tripled from 1.7 to 4.5 million vessels, driven by record expansion of motorized vessels. The power and capacity of modern fishing vessels mean we are now capable of fishing in up to 1.5km depth of water and in almost all areas – from the tropics to temperate zones, even in polar zones. 

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Snapshot global locations of two categories of vessel: fishing (orange, yellow and green) and cargo/tanker (aqua) taken from processing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data feeds. Countries’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary lines are displayed as a thin white line. © OceanMind

Building and operating the fishing vessels of the future – i.e. digitally enabled “smart boats” using efficient, practical physical engineering – is an underexplored frontier. Whilst expansion and motorization has partly created some of the world’s fishery challenges (especially excessive capacity, which can drive overfishing), the design of fishing vessels can improve practices. This includes customisable vessels that can easily switch out engine components and alternate between fishing gears to lower carbon emissions and waste (e.g. Bury Design’s configurable diesel-electric vessels) to using acoustic fish finders (traditionally a production-oriented tool) to acoustically monitor aquatic habitats (e.g. using Lowrance Electronics and Aimar Technology Corp. devices to map the floor of a volcanic lake).


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Overview of a fishing enabled for remote electronic compliance monitoring. Courtesy of Archipelago Marine Research Ltd

Perhaps the biggest growth area in vessel-oriented innovation has been in fisheries enforcement. Vessels can now be fully customised to make them as electronically traceable, trackable and transparent as possible, using an array of cameras, sensors and connectivity devices (e.g. Archipelago Marine Research Ltd’s standard remote electronic monitoring system set‐up). Technologies to better track the global fleet are rapidly advancing, from industry leaders in national Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) used in large fleets (e.g. ORBCOMM, CLS and BlueTracker) to newer designs intended to enable similar tracking of smaller vessels (e.g. Pelagic Data Systems). Concurrently, we can increasingly use “big data” to make sense of this expanding network of tracked vessels, thanks to the machine learning algorithms of Global Fishing Watch and OceanMind; tools that have enabled everything from the first estimate of the world’s fishing footprint to making seafood supply chains more transparent and traceable.  

Key questions for this thread:

  • What should the fishing vessels of the future look like?
  • How can vessel-oriented technology empower fishers and incentivise sustainable practice?
  • How can digital vessel enforcement be inclusive as well as effective?

Help us answer these important questions by joining our WILDLABS Sustainable Fishing Challenges group. You can respond to our Fishing Vessels of the Future challenge in this thread.

Check back next week for the second subject in this challenge: Innovating fishing gear!

How would you address this challenge? Join the conversation in our Sustainable Fishing Challenges forum!

Continue the discussion… Fishing vessels of the future