Jeremy Helson: Why the fisheries sector welcomes artificial intelligence

9 June 2023

Artificial Intelligence can already do some big things, some revolutionary, some potentially frightening. There’s the risk of disruption from fake political ads, nervousness about what it means for our jobs and philosophical questions about what constitutes life.

Jeremy Helson

But there is also huge potential for good in an industry not traditionally associated with cutting-edge technology - New Zealand’s commercial fishing sector, where we are welcoming it.

We can see the potential benefits for us as operators and everyone else with a stake in fishing, from regulators to the people who love to eat our kaimoana.

Why am I talking about AI and fishing right now? Not just because today is World Oceans Day (although the theme of changing tides is a great fit for this topic), but because the future of commercial fishing is up for debate.

Minister for Oceans and Fisheries Rachel Brooking launched the Fisheries Industry Transformation Plan (ITP) at the end of April, laying out a vision for the future of commercial fishing in New Zealand.

In her foreword, the minister says that fisheries have a key role to play in our future prosperity and acknowledges we face substantial challenges. Our inshore fleet is ageing, costs are going up and, like many in the primary sector, finding enough workers has been tough. Perhaps hardest of all, we face a changing marine environment.

I joined other experts in the leadership group that had input into the draft Fisheries ITP. Everyone in this group is more than aware of the risks and threats. But if you look beyond the negatives, you see something else.

The body of the Fisheries ITP talks about a future built on respect and innovation, as we fish with care and precision where the impacts of fishing on the ocean floor are minimal and we have a reduced carbon footprint.

In this future, we can improve productivity and profitability and help our workforce and communities thrive.

You may think that’s idealistic, but I can see a future where AI, linked to drones and underwater sensors, guides our vessels to the most productive fishing spots, helping us make the most efficient use of our time and fuel.

Those same drones will tell us if we are close to a vulnerable marine mammal, so we can change course.

Highly efficient engines also help reduce fuel, making fish one of the world’s lowest carbon proteins.

Other AI monitors what goes into our nets. If it sees something wrong, it can alert the skipper. If there is a seal or similar among the catch, a skipper can remotely open the net, freeing the animal.

In this future, AI plus new trawl technology helps us to fly our trawl gear over the seabed as much as possible, and where there is a need for contact, it is brief and light.

In this future, Kiwis can be rightly proud of our best-in-class fishing industry, which creates great jobs and supports families.

AI helps us with traceability and efficient supply chains; we can enjoy affordable seafood and the world beats a path to our door to buy our sustainable, low-carbon, delicious kaimoana, boosting our economy and giving quota-owning Māori interests a great return on their investments.

Here’s the twist.

This isn’t a pipe dream. The vision is well on its way to being a reality. Some of it already is.

We are developing the technology to open fishing nets underwater if a marine mammal is caught. This is being tested by New Zealand’s Precision Seafood Harvesting team, who have worked with the Ministry for Primary Industries and Plant & Food to deliver a new way of trawl fishing that is currently helping to boost the quality of the fish that are caught.

We already have a prototype of AI being used on fishing vessels to recognise unwanted, accidental catch. Nelson fisherman and businessman Dom Talijancich is the man behind Advanced Conservation Solutions, which is experimenting with AI-enabled detection of what is entering his fishing net; in real-time.

More efficient engines are already powering newly commissioned fishing vessels, dramatically reducing their carbon footprint.

Fish is already one of the world’s lowest carbon proteins. Technology shows where vessels are, with our fishers returning to the same fishing grounds each year, keeping our annual trawl footprint to just 2 per cent of our waters.

It’s far from crazy to say that we will be fishing very differently in New Zealand in five to 10 years’ time.

The ITP can be a springboard. We can invest seriously, work in collaboration with the Government and give it our all, or we can fail to change with the changing tides.

Right now, we are making great strides towards a visionary future with a seafood industry that is the envy of the world and the pride of New Zealanders.

If you also believe in that future, I would encourage you to submit to the Fisheries ITP by June 11, to celebrate the progress we have made already and help us push for more.

- Dr Jeremy Helson is a marine biologist, barrister and solicitor, who has worked in fisheries management at the Ministry for Primary Industries. He is formerly the CEO of Fisheries Inshore New Zealand and is currently the CEO of the industry umbrella body, Seafood New Zealand