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8 Technological Advances To Help Sustain Seafood

San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Harney Sushi

San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Harney Sushi

Securing sustainable seafood is a convoluted prospect at best. That statement applies whether you are the individual harvesting groundfish from the ocean’s floor, farming shellfish in local estuaries or buying wild salmon at the fish counter.

Buyers have to be “well versed in the adjectives (and colors) needed to ensure they are really buying sustainable seafood,” says Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Geographic have built seafood buying guides called Seafood Watch, FishWatch and Seafood Decision Guide, respectively. These guides employ green, yellow and red visual cues to advise consumers which fish are sustainable choices. Those ratings are based primarily on species population numbers and how pulling those fish from the ocean affects the overall marine ecosystem.

According to Barton Seaver, a longtime sustainable seafood advocate, seafood buying guides represent a good start. They help eaters choose the types of seafood the oceans can afford to give (those with green ratings and sometimes yellow), as opposed to the ones (red ratings) that may be overfished.

Seaver serves in a dual capacity as director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and as a sustainability fellow at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He argues that issues of economic viability for the fishermen, cultural preservation of fishing communities and the overall health of seafood eaters must also be taken into consideration when assessing seafood sustainability. Pulling these multiple elements of the sustainable seafood picture into focus will require advanced technology.

Seaver, Bowman, Steve Eayrs, a research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Shah Selbe, an aerospace engineer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, can readily point to technologies they believe are changing the sustainable seafood landscape. Their suggestions fall into three categories: making fishermen more efficient at harvesting fish in a sustainable fashion; cracking down on illegal fishing; and providing eaters with a reliable means of tracing where the fish on their plate came from and how it arrived there.

Technology No. 1: Precision Fishing

Smart Catch Technologies is a company co-located in Newport, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif., that creates products to support sustainable commercial fishing. Seaver pointed to the company’s CatchCam and SmartNet products because they enable “precision fishing,” a scheme under which non-target fish are released from nets before they are hauled ashore, thereby reducing both bycatch and waste.

Technology No. 2: Revamped Bottom Trawling Gear

Bottom trawling is the practice of towing a funnel-shaped net anchored open by two “doors” that have continuous or occasional contact with the ocean floor. Trawls catch shellfish and groundfish found near the seabed, and they have long been criticized for entrapping everything in their path, including sponges, corals and non-target species. Eayrs cites a recent study conducted by his institute showing that changes in the trawling gear — in how the doors are constructed to minimize contact with the floor and changes both in the size of the net holes and the materials from which they are constructed — reduce seabed impact by as much as 95% and yield a 12% reduction in fuel consumption with little or no variation in the targeted cod catch. If eaters are educated enough to be able to accept the premise that the fish was caught legally using the best available science, “then they can buy their cod with confidence,” Eayrs said.

Technology No. 3: GPS-Enabled Selective Trawling

According to Bowman, establishing a trawling footprint — clearly articulating which parts of the ocean floor can or can’t be open to trawling — and having fishermen (and enforcement agencies) use GPS technology to make sure fishermen do not drop their nets within a set distance from protected areas, is a use of technological application that holds the most promise for helping to feed the planet’s 9 billion people. “But it will also likely raise the most controversy on what the ocean can continue to give up for the sake of human consumption,” Bowman said.

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Engineer Shah Selbe, center, recently gave a presentation at the New England Aquarium about his work to use low-cost drones and open-source software to help monitor protected areas of the ocean for illegal fishing activities. Credit: New England Aquarium

Technology No. 4: Cheap Open Source Gear Helps to Decrease Illegal Fishing

In his recent lecture at the New England Aquarium, Selbe outlined FishNET, a project that focuses on developing integrated, low-cost technology solutions that help improve the ability to observe and collate data about illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). This suite of technologies comprises a Web-based data collection server, off-the-shelf drone and cellphone equipment, and cheap, open-source monitoring devices that together capture and analyze official and crowdsourced data on fishing vessels and exploited areas.

Technology No. 5: Sophisticated Satellite-Enabled Poaching and Dumping Surveillance

Seaver points to companies such as Windward and SkyTruth to illustrate the role of satellites in vessel tracking and how these efforts can help with all IUU issues and enable better fisheries management.

Technology No. 6: Bar Codes for Near Real-Time Seafood Supply Chain Tracking

Norpac Fisheries Export is a successful processing and distribution business that has developed and implemented traceability software to track fish from catch to retailer. Through the use of bar codes and back-end software, this system lets sellers and buyers know where their fish are at any point in the process, letting them pinpoint procedural inefficiencies and keeping illegally caught fish out of the chain. Seaver also points to the emerging field of DNA bar coding as a possible evolution. “Whoever invents a hand-held tissue sampler that can accurately ID a species on the spot will win big!” he said.

Technology No. 7: Sustainable Seafood Matchmaking

Colorado-based FishChoice Inc. has built an online matchmaking service for buyers and suppliers of sustainable seafood. According to Seaver, this service opens up the chance to distribute and purchase sustainably sourced products and streamlines recommendations and certifications from the NGO community. “The service … provides education and the opportunity to conduct the transaction right there,” Seaver said.

Technology No. 8: Storied Sushi

Owners of San Diego-based Harney Sushi have developed edible quick response codes (QR) — made of rice paper and edible ink — that customers can scan with their cellphones before eating any fish served to them. The codes link back to NOAA’s FishWatch database. “By demanding this kind of detail, we help send a message to suppliers that they need to know and verify their seafood sourcing,” Seaver said.

Main photo: San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi, so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Courtesy of Harney Sushi



Zester Daily contributor Christine Burns Rudalevige, based in Brunswick, Maine, is an independent journalist and classically trained home cook working to spread reliable information about the state of food consumption. She writes copy and develops and tests recipes for many media, including Cooking Light, NPR.org's The Salt, Food52, WholeFoodsMarketCooking.com, Portland (Me.) Press-Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 2013, Rudalevige co-founded with Mollie Sanders, the Family Fish Project, a blog (www.familyfish.net), recipe site and cookbook project designed to help busy families cook and eat more seafood at home. As a chef instructor at Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine, Rudalevige develops and teaches recreational cooking classes.

6 COMMENTS
  • Julia della Croce 5·20·14

    Thank you for this update, Christine. Buying seafood feels more more like walking on thin ice. Please keep us all posted.

  • Jules Grant 5·20·14

    Love the bar code idea

  • Jill Thompson 5·21·14

    What a very interesting article thank you for taking the time to research this.

  • Michael Saltzman 5·21·14

    Thank you Christine for your story. I’m curious about your take on Farm Raised Sturgeon? I have read articles that state outside of the eggs (caviar) there is little to no interest in the fish (for eating). Because of that, most fish are ground up and used for fertilizer. Looking at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium list, the fish seems to be a good choice or good alternative. Why is there so little interest in purchasing and eating the fish? We’ve incorporated into our diet and purchase it frozen defrosted at a local market. Its not ‘easy’ finding recipes but it seems this is an underutilized fish for consumers. Is it a lack of consumer interest? Education? Any thoughts?

  • Marc 3·1·15

    Great suggestions that I hope can be implemented.

    Here’s another one: magnets on hooks to repel sharks. A piece by Ari Daniel Shapiro at the NOVA website tells the story (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/magnetic-fish-hooks-save-sharks.html). In the early 2000s, Eric Stroud was doing some research on shark repellents and found that his test sharks responded dramatically when a magnet accidentally fell into the pool: the shark changed its swimming direction. And so, perhaps magnets could be integrated into longline hooks, thus repelling sharks from the bait that would make them bycatch. Back in 2006, WWF gave an International Fishing Gear Award to Michael M. Herrmann for his magnet plus hook design. There are several patents on the subject.

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