Food & Drink

Buoys, fisheries and aquaculture join the internet of things

by Rob Gilhooly

Contributing Writer

Like many in Sanriku, Iwate Prefecture, Kenichiro Yagi lost his waterfront business in the March 2011 Tohoku disasters. But in an imaginative bid to get his fishery company back online, that’s literally what he did: He connected to the internet.

Placing PCs and webcams onboard the four fishing boats recovered from the detritus, Yagi posts details of catches online in real time, offering his consumers fresh fish.

Besides enabling fishermen to work around the lack of a physical marketplace, technology offers an additional sustainability advantage: It matches supply and demand, increasing the chances of unwanted fish being returned to the sea alive.

“The reality is most caught produce goes to waste and in extreme cases this results in fishermen increasing their catch to compensate,” Yagi says. “It’s a vicious circle, but it can be countered by a reliable monitoring system.”

Yagi’s idea is one of many developed in recent years, each aimed at utilizing “internet of things” technology to ensure seafood comes from sustainable sources.

Some ideas come from communications companies that have joined forces with fishery organizations to develop groundbreaking technology.

Among them are NTT Docomo Inc. and KDDI Corp., which began working alongside fishermen and oyster and laver farmers in Miyagi Prefecture’s Higashi- Matsushima in the aftermath of the disasters.

Like Yagi, fishery workers’ oceanside homes and businesses in Higashi-Matsushima were destroyed by the tsunami waves, forcing workers to relocate.

In order to better understand the quake- and tsunami-altered conditions of the Pacific Ocean, both companies independently developed buoys equipped with underwater cameras and sensors that could gather data and send it via wireless modules to cloud servers.

Docomo’s ICT Buoy provides data on sea conditions, such as temperature and salinity concentration — critical information for aquaculture businesses — while KDDI’s “smart buoy” estimates the following day’s catch size.

Both sets of data are transmitted to fishermen’s phones via a dedicated app.

“We thought that by providing an estimate of the next day’s catch, we could help the fishermen, and … reduce overfishing,” says Masayoshi Fukushima of KDDI’s IoT Business Promotion division.

KDDI has continued to research prediction systems that can work independently of big data, and figures collected to date indicate predictions and actual catch size are converging significantly, says Fukushima.

KDDI has also developed technology alongside other municipalities, including Goto, in Nagasaki Prefecture, where drones are used to detect red tide in order to protect farmed bluefin tuna, which are particularly vulnerable to red tide’s harmful algae blooms, Fukushima adds.

Meanwhile, Docomo’s technology is now being utilized by several fishery cooperatives nationwide, including those in Saga and Aichi prefectures.

“Visualizing the relationship between the environmental conditions of the sea and aquaculture technology will enable the succession of next-generation aquaculture technology,” says Keiichi Yamamoto of Docomo’s regional innovative collaboration and ICT promotion division, whose app is aptly named Umimiru (See Sea). “Results show the technology is already improving efficiency.”

Aquaculture’s contribution to total world fish production more than doubled between 1995 and 2010 to 45.6 percent and is predicted to be the main source of seafood over the next few decades.

With the global population predicted to grow 30 percent — to 9.8 billion — by 2050, the need to develop more sustainable aquaculture to keep pace with increasing global demand is at the heart of venture business Umitron, another company that has been pairing internet of things technology with farming, and whose central tenet is “empowering nature through technology.”

The technology it has developed includes in situ data gathering, remote sensing via satellite and DNA analytics — all aimed at increasing efficiency at farms by optimizing feeding and reducing labor costs, according to Umitron CEO and co-founder Ken Fujiwara.

“I think aquaculture will be the most important (food) industry this century,” says Fujiwara, adding that aquaculture’s untapped potential is huge. “According to one report, the world’s oceans can provide enough space to produce aquaculture totalling 100 times the current (global) seafood consumption.”

Internet of things technology has a huge role to play in realizing that potential and ensuring farming is sustainable, Fujiwara adds.

Yet technological advances are not all good news, especially in current wild capture fisheries.

Increasingly, industrial-scale fisheries are employing so-called artificial fish aggregating devices (FADs) to lure larger fish, especially tuna. These fisheries utilize satellite and other technology to monitor fish remotely and target FADs where fish biomass is most bountiful.

“Clearly (FADs have) an impact on sustainability,” says The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Mark Young.

Conversely, vessel monitoring system technology, which can track illegal fishing practices anywhere on the globe, is also becoming increasingly sophisticated, incorporating features such as electronic catch reporting and integrated catch documenting schemes that can track where fish are caught and monitor catch quota, Young adds.

Young says technology is “a useful tool” but less potent without effective government policies and awareness in the seafood industry to prevent illegal fish entering the market.

In Japan, awareness is also an issue at the public level, according to well-known scientist Ken Mogi.

“If people hear stocks of a fish are depleted, they rush out to eat it,” Mogi said during the 2018 Tokyo Sustainable Seafood Symposium. “Japan has lagged so far behind largely because of a low IQ and lack of understanding of sustainability issues.”